I am fortunate to have many colorful friends. However, the most adventurous and helpful with my writing career has been Jim Morris. He is a former Green Beret major and the man who penned the real-life story that became the Disney film Operation Dumbo Drop. Writing has continually provided Jim with the opportunity to marvel at the ironies of life and war, as he captured in his award-winning autobiography, War Story, about his three tours of duty in Vietnam.
For those of you not familiar with the Disney film, it takes place during the Vietnam War. Someone up the chain of command decides that it would be a good idea to help an indigenous tribe of allies, the Montagnards, by supplying them with elephants to help them farm. Agreeing to deliver the elephants, though, proves much easier than it was to logistically accomplish the task.
As part of the team assigned to the operation, in charge of communications, Jim recorded the facts as they developed step-by-step and misstep-by-misstep. All the while he was hoping to get good press for a Special Forces’ project called “Revolutionary Development”, a buzzword for the United States’ nation-building efforts. One elephant was eventually airlifted and dropped safely to one of the tribes. However, that rare bit of good news coming out of an unpopular war was overshadowed. For on the same day, April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King was assassinated.
Following his three tours of duty, with the war behind him, I suspect Jim missed the adrenaline rush he’d grown accustomed to expecting from life as a young soldier. Therefore, he began taking advantage of every opportunity he got to make parachute jumps in a host of foreign countries to earn another new set of wings. Furthermore, he went on to work for many years as an editor and foreign correspondent with Soldier of Fortune. Up close and personal, he witnessed and covered numerous wars and conflicts.
I first met Jim, in 1990, through a friend who worked for Harcourt, Brace and Jovanovich. At the time I was trying my hand at writing my first mystery novel, A Dance in the Street, frustrated after getting two scripts optioned but never produced for the screen. Jim became enamored with my protagonist, Solomon Priester, a Rastafarian, cab driving Los Angeles private investigator with no clients. Though the publishing company he worked for at the time passed on the book, he found a home for the novel with Avon Books. I can still recall his words over the phone line during one of our conversations, “Consider your career launched.”
In later years, after Jim relocated from New York to Los Angeles, he became a regular at the monthly writers’ group meetings often held at my house before I moved to Virginia. Some of the best stories I’ve ever heard or traded came when we took the time to spin tales for each other. Initially, I found it curious that we had so much in common, having had such diverse experiences. As a black man, my primary education came from the hard-scrabbled streets of North Philadelphia; Jim, white and fair-haired, was born and raised in rural Oklahoma, attended military schools and graduated from the University of Oklahoma. Yet the more I got to know him, the more I began to think of him as one of my best friends. He has also become my major source for information and opinions on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“Oil,” is the one word he recently used to explain our involvement in Iraq. But as far as the war in Afghanistan goes, Jim believes the Bush Administration broke many promises to stand by the Afghans. To illustrate his point of view, he explained that the Afghan army, as well as many members of their police force, have deserted their duties in droves, because they have not been paid for months. Consequently, the warlords reclaimed control of many areas, the poppy crops are thriving, the Taliban is re-organizing and Al-Queda is reforming in the mountains. Jim calls this, “The vast carelessness of a rich nation.” And these actions are emblematic of the same about-face he witnessed in Vietnam when the United States withdrew its forces and abandoned the Montagnards.
At this point, I will let Jim’s own words paint that picture. “The Montagnards are a collection of 31 tribes living in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. They are a Malayo-Polynesian people. They don’t look like the Vietnamese, and their culture is nothing like that of Vietnam.
“We fought alongside them from 1962 until 1973. We loved them. They were a sturdy reliable people. They were brave, and many of them saved many of our lives. In the time we were with them they changed from a Stone Age people who had never developed the wheel into a modern fighting force fully capable of defeating the best that the North Vietnamese could throw at them. Over that decade half the Montagnard men of military age died in our service.
“This fact has not escaped the North Vietnamese. They have stolen the lands of the Montagnards, and done everything in their power to obliterate their culture.
“One of my intelligence agents, who had, pretty much single-handedly, captured a VC civil administrator, actually the most important prisoner our side had captured in the preceding two years. He was more than an intelligence agent; he was a good friend, a sweet, dour, very intelligent man named Nay Luette. By the time Saigon fell he had risen to be the Minister of Ethnic Minorities in the South Vietnamese government.
“That certainly made an impression on his captors at the “Re-education Camp”. According to other Montagnards, the camp commandant said, “If this moi has such a big brain, we should look at it.” They did. They took off the top of his skull to look at his brain. He was alive and conscious when they started. Another friend, Y Jut Buonto, now a city planner in Seattle, had made a name for himself as an intelligence agent and commando leader working for the CIA. He escaped, but the North Vietnamese were not to be cheated of their revenge. They made his mother dig her own grave and buried her alive in it. Want more? I got a million of ’em.
“When the Americans left Luette offered to start a guerrilla movement in our behalf. He knew that without American support the movement would fail. Our embassy, without actually promising support, gave the impression that it would be forthcoming. There are no weasel words in the Montagnard languages. If somebody nods and smiles when you ask a yes or no question, that means yes. The Montagnards fought on for a decade. Y Tlur Eban, one of their guerrilla commanders told me, “We won every battle, and came out of every one worse off than before.” Their weapons broke; they ran out of ammo. Their radios broke down. But they couldn’t quit because they were wanted men. Four thousand of them set out across Cambodia for Thailand, to find the Americans. Four years later two hundred of them arrived and were immediately clapped into a refugee camp, to rot.
“My friend, the late Don Scott, who had run a civilian hospital in Vietnam for an outfit called Project Concern, spent two years of his life and a quarter of a million dollars of his own money to get them to the U.S. I took a couple of years off to help him. A lot of folks, mostly former Special Forces jumped in to help.
“It’s still going on. Carl Regan, once, at 21, the youngest captain in the U.S. Army, spent about that much time and money to ramrod a movement to get another thousand Montagnards to the U.S last year. All told there are now more than 8,000 Montagnards here. None are on welfare; most work two or three jobs. When we found them they wore loincloths and hunted with crossbows. There are now three or four Montagnard millionaires (One says his favorite English word is “interest.”), some Ph.D.s, and one published author.
“I’m proud of what the Americans who fought with them have done, not so proud of what the government we both fought for has done. In 1968 there were 2,000,000 Montagnards in Vietnam, and now there are 750,000 and dropping. They are in hell. We left them in hell.
“Afghanistan is swiftly becoming another kind of hell. As for Iraq, we shall soon know if we’re birthin’ this baby, or if we were just jerking off.”
While conversing with him the other day by phone, I asked if having President Barack Obama as our new commander in chief would make a dramatic difference as to the outcome of the war in Afghanistan. I heard him clear his throat to speak. Then, for some inexplicable reason, my phone line went dead.