The Vietnam War in Nelson DeMille


A year after you got to Vietnam, you were home again.
I came home right before Thanksgiving in ’68, as I recall. I was mostly in Vietnam for the whole year.
Did the war affect you psychologically?
I didn’t have any post-traumatic stress from the war. I did have a lot of sleepless nights for a couple of months. I wouldn’t call it post-traumatic stress. It was stress. Decompression. I just wanted to get back into my life. It doesn’t come back now, but it did come back for a couple of years. The war was still going on. The war was on TV.  I would have nightmares sometimes about the war only because it was still going on. At some point, though, it just stopped.
It’s hard to see people that you know get killed. You think you are going to get better at what you are doing. You think your skill is going to get you by. Some of it is luck. Guys would put an AK47 round in the band of their helmet. They were superstitious. You captured the round that was going to kill you. The ace of spades in your helmet. There were certain things you could do that were going to keep you from getting killed. It was a comfort. You had some control over the situation – a talisman. The more important thing was to learn your job, figure out what was going on, keep your head down, and you would, sometimes, be OK.
Much of what you remember from the Vietnam War was recaptured in “Up Country,” a novel featuring Paul Brenner, a military investigator who goes back to Southeast Asia to unravel a 30-year-old murder mystery.
It’s become a big best seller 15 years after I wrote it. I had so much invested in it. I wanted this book to do well at first, and it didn’t. It was a big disappointment. But then, it became a bigger seller than any of my books, except for “Charm School,” of all books. It has been especially big as an e-book. You don’t know why people buy books, but this one ultimately came up there over time, which was great. A lot of veterans wrote to me, and a lot of families.
“Up Country” was the product of a trip you made back to Vietnam in 1997. What did you discover on that trip?
In 1997, things were coming back. The railroad wasn’t back yet. Now it is, I understand. Highway 1 was fragmented. Bridges that were blown were back by ‘97, but Highway 1 was still in bad shape. This is like 20 years (after the war). If nothing else, the commies are supposed to be efficient to get this kind of thing done. Twenty years had gone by. The place was still in bad shape. It didn’t take the Germans 20 years, and it was devastated. I was surprised. The infrastructure still wasn’t there.
Cities like Saigon were booming, but other places were not. The workers had come to Saigon where the Japanese and the Koreans had set up shop, and the Americans and the French had come back.
What was it like as you ventured north during that trip?
It was like you were still in a war-torn country as soon as you left Saigon city. Nothing worked right. Electricity was spotty. There were still the 2,000-pound-bomb craters all over the place. It takes a while to fill them in, but if you have a bulldozer, it takes a couple of days. But these craters were still there, making the fields unusable basically, for rice anyway. They still hadn’t gotten around to getting this country back. They certainly had the ingenuity and the work ethic. They just didn’t have the money, and nobody was going to bring it to them.
Were you thinking the trip would turn into a novel?
What happened was a magazine called – an online travel magazine that was owned by Microsoft. They wanted me to do a travel article about Vietnam, all expenses paid. I said, “Thank you … but I’ve been there all-expenses-paid before.”
Then it hit me that if I am ever going to go, this is the time. There are veterans groups that go back, but I would be going back on my own this time, although they were going to put me with a tour group because you couldn’t really do independent travel in Vietnam – very difficult logistically and politically. People do it now, but this was ’97.
I called five or six veterans and said, “This is your opportunity to go back to Vietnam.” I got two of them to go.
Dan Barbiero of Glen Cove, Long Island, who was with the 3rd Marines, and Cal Kleinman, a medic with the 11th Armored Cav.  We were (in country) at the same time, coincidentally, almost the exact same months. Dan had graduated Yale ’66 with John Kerry. John joined the Navy, and his career is well documented. I saw John before we left. We met on the east side of New York and had a drink. John gave us a letter since he was on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He also got us a letter from the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry, sort of a get-out-of-jail-free letter that was a good thing to have. We used it once or twice. It helped. It was written in Vietnamese. I had no idea what it said. We did have a little problem at the airport coming through passport control.
One character of “Up Country,” Col. Mang, constantly harasses Paul Brenner from the time he arrives and questions his passport. Was there a Col. Mang on your real trip?
There was. That’s where that guy came from. He was a little nasty. He was a North Vietnamese. You can always tell the difference. They are bigger than the South Vietnamese, with a little bit of a hard attitude. The South Vietnamese still really like the Americans. But a lot of the cadre there – the people who really run things – are the North Vietnamese, the carpetbaggers. They are in the south, and remember that this is 1997, and some of them had been there a long time running the show. They were the victors. This guy was definitely North Vietnamese. He was old enough to be a combat veteran. He told me we killed his friends and his brother and his father. Who knows who we killed? But he was not happy with us. It was not a good introduction to the country. It got better after that. We never ended up in a back room, and one of the reasons is that we had this letter. It said we were honored guests of the Vietnamese Foreign Minister. 
And you had your fellow Vietnam War veterans with you.
These guys wanted to go. Middle-aged guys. We could take the time, had the money. We went there with the idea that I am going to write a magazine article, but I realized as soon as I got there that there is a book here somewhere, a novel. I was not sure what it was going to be about. It didn’t quite take hold in my head at the time I was there, except to the extent that it had to be not a war novel, obviously, but a novel about a man from America who goes back after 30 years. I knew that this had to be written now because as the years go by, your Vietnam War hero who was young in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s is becoming a little over the hill to be an action-adventure pop sensation. It was still OK in ’97 because my guys were in their late 40s, early 50s. The book was set in ’97.
What were you able to see?
We went out to Cu Chi tunnels, but we didn’t go into them. In every town there was an American tank – their trophy. None of them were blown up. They were American in that they were made in America. They were South Vietnamese. What they would do is sandpaper off the South Vietnamese insignia. You could see where they did it, and repainted it, put the American insignia onto it. It was so obvious. These were tanks that were probably captured in ’73 or ’74, near the end of the war, when we were not there.
The war, then, was still a big part of their culture in 1997.
They were still living this war. To them, it was like World War II. It was like the Russians and the Great Patriotic War. They don’t want you to forget it. There were museums, monuments, tanks – a lot of abandoned tanks on the side of the road, again with American markings when they had really been South Vietnamese tanks.
Then – not so much now – they were obsessed with the underground, this underground movement of former South Vietnamese soldiers that were hiding in the jungle. The North won the revolution, but they couldn’t understand when there was no more opposition. I think they needed the opposition. I think they kind of manufactured it in some ways … also to keep a tight grip on the country.
There was no underground. There were a lot of people who were disaffected. They hated the communists in the south, but they weren’t meant to take up arms. It was over. Totally over. There was no organized opposition, except maybe the mountain tribes.
How long were you there?
We were there like 27 days. After Saigon and Cu Chi, we went up country. We went with a tour group, but we were able to leave the group without arousing too much suspicion. We went off on our own whenever we could. We used their hotels.
What was the difference of perception as you moved north?
They hated us in Hanoi. We felt uncomfortable there. We left a day early and went to Bangkok. We were fine in the south. The ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) veterans recognized us right away. All these guys were so pathetic. They were missing legs, missing eyes … really just a pathetic lot. They were treated like crap. They were not allowed to hold certain jobs. There were only a few jobs they could do – sweep the streets, that sort of thing. They were treated as a very defeated army. They weren’t using the American Civil War as the model, I will tell you that. They had bulldozed the military cemeteries, which is a terrible thing to do in any culture, but in a Buddhist culture especially. They didn’t do all of them, but we definitely saw one that was bulldozed. Our guide showed it to us.
What was your feeling about Vietnam’s condition when you left?
This country has to heal, and the only way it’s going to heal is through the passage of years. That was 14 years ago. Maybe it’s better now.
By the time I got there, all the re-education camps were closed, so it wasn’t terrible-terrible. I can’t even imagine what it was like 10 years before that. Tourism had opened up … they liked American money. They were looking for tourism. They got a lot of it from Australia and American tour groups that came, the veterans groups. We were the only veterans in our tour group. They took us to the bars where there were American veterans, like the “Apocalypse Now” Bar in Saigon. When I saw that, I knew we’d really won the war. There was so much commercial activity in Saigon. There was a poster there signed by the cast of “Apocalypse Now.” It was not free-reigning capitalism, but I think the Vietnamese looked at Saigon the way the Chinese look at Hong Kong: it’s OK as long as it doesn’t contaminate the rest of the country. But Saigon was the engine that was driving the economy. Hanoi, by comparison, was a sleepy provincial town. That’s the enemy capital. They won the war, but there’s nothing going on there.
As you traveled through Vietnam, how much of “Up Country” was coming to mind?
There was going to be a guy my age, maybe a little younger, going back to Vietnam 30 years later. But I needed a reason. I didn’t have the reason for him to go back.
But you and the two other veterans you traveled with were recapturing some of the emotions confronted by the Paul Brenner character, a Vietnam War veteran whose experiences were not unlike yours.
There was an emotional response, but it wasn’t that. We all brought pictures of ourselves in uniform as younger people. We showed them to the Vietnamese, and they thought this was kind of cool or funny, or whatever. We realized 30 years had gone by, and we are old, getting middle-aged anyway. I think there was a kind of sadness that we were no longer 25-year-olds and 24-year-olds. You have to realize, you’re going back to a place where you were 25 and at the top of your physical prowess, ready to kill or be killed, and now you’re a middle-aged guy.