Showing posts with label Sarah Bird. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sarah Bird. Show all posts

09 January 2019

A Killing in Wartime


David Edgerley Gates


A decorated soldier, a former Special Forces captain in Afghanistan, is being charged with murder by the U.S. Army - not a domestic, or Crazy Guy Shoots Up Walmart, but combat-related, a violation of the Rules of Engagement. Matthew Golsteyn was deployed to Marjah, in Helmand Province, in 2010. The area is a major producer of poppy and a primary revenue source for the Taliban. Two of Golsteyn's troops were blown up by booby-traps, on patrol, and not long after, Golsteyn got custody of a suspected Afghan bomb-maker. The guy didn't talk, and Golsteyn was required to release him. In a CIA job interview a year later, however, Golsteyn said he knew that if he let the guy go, it was a death warrant for Afghans working with U.S. forces, and for other GI's. Golsteyn took the guy out past the wire and shot him.

That's one version, anyway. The initial investigation came up, if not empty, inconclusive. But in 2016, Golsteyn did something deeply stupid. He shot his mouth off to Fox News, and said he killed the guy. At which point, the Army reopens the case. This time, they bring capital charges.

Regardless of the merits, the case has now caught the attention of Our National Joke. Trump thinks an injustice is being perpetrated, and he's promised to look into it. "I will be reviewing the case of a U.S. military hero.... He could face the death penalty from our own government after he admitted killing a terrorist bomb maker while overseas." Trump, of course, doesn't know his ass from a hole in the ground around the UCMJ - the Universal Code of Military Justice - and he's blithely unaware that what he's doing could compromise the case, one way or the other.

It's called Unlawful Command Influence. For example, Pres. Obama said heatedly that sex offenders in the military should be "prosecuted, stripped of their positions, court-martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged." This was later interpreted as prejudicial, and there was in fact one Navy judge who ruled out a punitive discharge at court-martial because of Obama's statement. (Trump said inflammatory things during the campaign about Bowe Bergdahl, and although the judge in that case acknowledged Trump's remarks were inappropriate, he gave Bergdahl a DD anyway.) In the Golsteyn case, we're talking about influencing a favorable verdict, or asking for dismissal. It ain't gonna happen, but we'll see if the fat lady can carry a tune.

*

Return with us now, through the mists of time, to that unlovely year 1969. Nha Trang. A suspected Vietnamese informer named Thai Khac Chuyen is taken on a boat ride out into the South China Sea, shot twice in the back of the head, and dumped over the side. Project GAMMA was a spook show, run out of 5th Special Forces under CIA discipline, and CIA signed off on Chuyen's termination  (although they'd pretend otherwise, when the shit hit the fan.) Six of the Green Berets in the unit, along with 5th SPG's commanding officer, Col. Robert Rheault, wind up in the stockade, waiting on an Article 32, preliminary hearing for a general court-martial, charged with murder.

You have to understand the politics, here. Abe Abrams had taken over from Westmoreland the year before. Abrams was a tank guy. He didn't have any patience with Spec Ops, and he especially didn't want his boys, GI's, carrying water for CIA. It was all about accountability. Abrams also thought Col. Rheault had lied to him, but this is a little tricky, because Rheault was new on the job, and may not have been fully briefed. GAMMA was restricted access, Need-to-Know. Rheault could have easily repeated the CIA cover story to Abrams, without realizing it was fabricated. Either way, the damage was done. Abrams was in a fury.

Abrams is in no way mollified by the press coverage, which reports the Green Berets are being scapegoated, first to take the heat off CIA, and secondly, when evidence surfaces that Chuyen was in fact a spy, to ask why they were charged in the first place. Killing the enemy is a soldier's first order of business. The defense asks to depose both Abrams himself, and the CIA station chief in Saigon. This hot potato goes all the way up the chain of command. Nixon instructs Haldeman to put the kibosh on the whole thing, and CIA falls in line, refusing on national security grounds to cooperate with the court-martial authorities at all. The secretary of the Army vacates the charges. Rheault asks for reinstatement. Abrams turns him down. Rheault resigns his commission and quits the Army.

Now that's what you call Unlawful Command Influence. And that's why the protocols and procedures are in place, to guard against malice, against too-easy resolutions, and against simple-minded blowhards with too much time on their hands. More honored in the breach than in the observance.

*

I've written myself about GI's, and spooks, who puts the fix in and who gets squeezed in the middle, and I'm now happy to report I've discovered somebody else working that turf, a sort of DMZ, between the wild and the sown. Martin Limón is new to me, but that's soon remedied.

Thirteen novels and counting, beginning with Jade Lady Burning and Slicky Boys, and a story collection, Nightmare Range. So far as I know, his first published appearance was in Hitchcock, in 1991. He's mixed it up a little, but for our purposes, it's the George Sueño and Ernie Bascom series that's center ring. George and Ernie are U.S. Army CID investigators in Korea, in the 1970's. They work the street, on the edge of the rackets and the black market, at the exotic and familiar overlap of Korean and American GI culture. Not so much American, mind, as American military, itself both an exotic and familiar creature.

These are terrific books, not least because the environment is a bubble off of plumb. And they're dark, no getting around it. I'm reminded not a little of Sarah Bird's wonderful novel about a career U.S. Air Force family in Japan, The Yokota Officers Club. Her book isn't a crime story, even if in part it's about secrets, but it inhabits a sort of Twilight Zone, because the world she describes is foreign, with its cadences and rigidity, and its very own vocabulary. Martin Limón gets this cold, and he does it in a similar way, by treating it as matter-of-fact.

There's a lot to be said for turning the conventions backwards. If you accept a structure, a template, the characteristics of a Western, or a Gothic, the elements of noir, it doesn't tie your hands. It can be invigorating. Martin Limón takes the police procedural and folds it in on itself, and hands it back to you with the pin pulled out.


23 March 2016

Nomads


David Edgerley Gates

War novels and war movies are a genre, and military settings in peacetime, as well - SOLDIER IN THE RAIN, or REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE, for example - but there's a special subset, stories about dependentsmilitary families and their dynamics, their tensions and dislocations.

The gold standard, most military brats seem to think, is Pat Conroy's THE GREAT SANTINI. I have to say, though, that I've never warmed up to Conroy as a writer. The one book I like is THE LORDS OF DISCIPLINE, and that itself is another genre subset, the military academy book, Calder Willingham's END AS A MAN, Lucian Truscott's DRESS GRAY (my personal gold standard in this category). And meanwhile, Conroy's also among the fallen, having died only this past week, so it feels mean-spirited, or anyway inappropriate, to damn him with faint praise. In any case, people who grew up on the inside, with career military families, will tell you THE GREAT SANTINI sets the bar pretty high. Sarah Bird, who's an Air Force brat, calls it the Rosetta Stone.

Sarah Bird's sixth novel, THE YOKOTA OFFICERS CLUB, came out in 2001, so I'm a little late to the party. Her dad, a flyer, was stationed at Yokota AFB, outside Tokyo, and later at Kadena, on Okinawa. He flew recon missions, which I take to mean RF-101 Voodoos and RF-4C's. The target was North Viet Nam. Nine out of ten crews in his squadron were eventually lost, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. Sarah says it was years before she realized his DFC wasn't just given for perfect attendance.

As an aside, I was once penciled in for flight status out of Yokota, an assignment that never materialized, but it would have meant flying ELINT missions out over the South China Sea and down along the coast of North Viet Nam, lighting up the SAM sites as we came into range. Which leads me to suspect that Maj. Bird flew what were known as Ferret Flights. He never explained to his daughter exactly what he did, it was classified, and she filled in the blanks after the fact. My point, here, is that I've got some inside dope, but it's actually not entirely pertinent. As a matter of fact, in the novel, the mysteries of the dad's duty rotation, and sometime absences, is part of the fabric of uncertainty his family lives with.

However. What the guy does is both central, and secondary. THE YOKOTA OFFICERS CLUB is mostly about the oldest kid, Bernie, for Bernadette, and her relationships with the other kids, and with her mom. The military environment is a constant presence, but it's a gravitational influence, like a planet in unstable orbit. Even if you don't see it, you feel its tidal pull.

This is the thing I liked best about the book, the sense of immersion, and at the same time, apartness, or isolation. Bernie's center of gravity is her immediate family, but although she's in this larger institution, the military and the airbase where they're stationed, she's not entirely of it. She says to her sister Kit, at one point, You know it's all transitory, you have to detach, how can you take it seriously? Meaning, the next assignment takes you to a new installation - a new school, a new set of people, a new kind of landscape to navigate, and yet the same constraints of behavior, and how you present yourself. And the rules are all the more restrictive because they're unspoken, half the time. You absorb it by osmosis.

This is a life experience I'm guessing you can't really inhabit unless you've been there. You can come close, you can approximate it, and Sarah Bird does a pretty amazing job of making it enormously vivid and convincing, with never a false note, but all the same, no matter how well you describe it, or reimagine it, breathe it in and breathe it out, some part of it will elude the rest of us.

She says, Sarah, that she's perhaps paying back an obligation. She calls the novel a Valentine. In an interview, she remarks that "All of this made us [her family] something of our own little tribe of nomadic recluses, outsiders within this greater tribe of outsiders permanently passing through America." I find it a very telling observation that she pictures the serving military as outsiders, and I think she's right. Permanently passing through. In, but not of.

Don't mistake me, though. THE YOKOTA OFFICERS CLUB is anything but a niche novel. I'm obviously relating to it on some kind of metabolic level, simply because it rings so true to me - and that's not to suggest you have to see it through my eyes. It opens a window on an unfamiliar world, and makes it seem utterly intimate and organic. Partly this is Bernie, who's a wonderfully engaging narrator, but also the choice of exact detail, although coming at you from an odd angle, and not quite what you expected. Then again, the book as a whole works against your expectations. That's its charm. And there's the word I've been looking for all along. Charm. In either sense, too. Both the goofy, flirty, adolescent voice, and the sense of casting a spell. It holds you captive.