In "Tour of Duty" (December Atlantic), Douglas Brinkley refers to Vietnam's past "invaders," and includes among them the people that William Lederer and Eugene Burdick called "Ugly Americans" in their 1958 book. The clear implication is that "the ugly American" is the "bad guy," representing U.S. ethnocentrism and inappropriate interference in the internal affairs of Vietnam. Indeed, the epithet is often used in a negative way, and the reference is always to this book by Lederer and Burdick.
The phrase is not, however, used this way in the book. The Ugly American is indeed about U.S. interference in the fictional Southeast Asian country of Sarkhan (read Vietnam), and most of the Americans are seen as a bunch of arrogant and ethnocentric bureaucrats who deal with top officials and recommend inappropriate development projects that do not meet the needs of average Sarkhanians. These Americans and their Sarkhanian counterparts are portrayed as the "suits"—prettified officials who never take the trouble to talk to the peasants.
Chapter 17 introduces another sort of American—an economic-assistance engineer named Homer Atkins, who lives among the common people and gets to know their lifestyle and needs. Rather than "building dams and military roads," as proposed by the American government, Atkins finds that what is most needed is a simple water pump that can be powered by bicycles. He sets out to build this in the countryside, and takes on a Sarkhanese as his partner. So Atkins is the hero, not the villain, of Lederer and Burdick's book. He is called "the ugly American" because he is physically ugly; his partner is "the ugly Sarkhanese" for the same reason. Despite their physical ugliness, these two are morally beautiful, because they work for the people, helping to develop a needed product and to build an indigenous industry at an appropriate level of technology. In contrast, the "suits" in the capital city are physically attractive but, presumably, morally ugly.
Merion Station, Pa.
I was struck by the ending of Douglas Brinkley's piece on John Kerry's Vietnam combat experience, a passage that was apparently taken from Kerry's war diary. Having jumped into a ditch with the mutilated body of a comrade, and with AK-47 bullets whizzing over his head, Kerry recorded the following dissociative episode:
I just lay in the ditch, not firing because I wanted to save ammo and because I couldn't see what I was firing at and I thought about what was happening in New York at that very moment and if people really felt that I was doing something worthwhile while they went down to Schrafft's and had another ice cream sundae or while some fat little old man who made another million in the past months off defense contracts was charging another $100 call girl to his expense account. And then, when the shooting stopped, I came back to where I was.
To anyone who grew up reading Hemingway and Fitzgerald, the style and sense of the passage is familiar, especially the references to Schrafft's ice-cream sundaes and fat little old defense contractors with their expense-account "call girls"—images that sound about right for 1920 or 1935, but to my ears are very dated if ostensibly reflecting the thoughts of a young American under fire circa 1969.
Which is not to say the account is not perfectly true. I've heard a story about an intoxicated reporter who got thrown in jail and, feeling that some dramatic response was called for, removed one shoe and pounded it against the bars of his cell, only later realizing that he had borrowed the scene wholesale from a gangster movie.
However, there is no apparent irony in Kerry's story, and since Hemingway himself was big on bullshit detection, I can't help wondering if an American soldier in 1969 in a Vietnamese ditch under AK-47 fire would truly ponder New Yorkers eating Schrafft's ice-cream sundaes and fat little old defense contractors charging their expense accounts for call girls. Having never been in combat, I have no basis for judging, but it would be most edifying to learn if the passage rings true according to the bullshit detectors of other combat veterans.
Thomas Martin Pflaum
According to an excerpt from John Kerry's war diary, when pinned down by enemy fire, Kerry wondered about fat-cat war profiteers who charge call girls' fees to the cost of war materiel. Ordinary combat officers, when pinned down by enemy fire, tighten their sphincters and wonder 1) How the hell am I going to get out of this? and 2) What's the best thing I can do now for my men and my mission?
One wonders what Lieutenant Kerry's men wondered while he wondered about higher matters.
Joseph R. Owen
First Lieutenant, U.S. Marine Corps (Ret.)
I have just finished reading Douglas Brinkley's article "Tour of Duty." I must say I was profoundly moved by Senator John Kerry's sharing of his experiences in Vietnam. Such sharing invites a question: Should Senator Kerry be fortunate enough to win the Democratic nomination, and as a consequence rise to the presidency of the United States, could he in good conscience commit U.S. soldiers to a conflict like the ones in Afghanistan and Iraq? Could he as President, having experienced as a combatant the deception involved in sending troops to Vietnam, involve soldiers in the same way that Presidents who have zealously avoided any military service have done?
Arthur E. Ammeter
Despite his revulsion for the carnage and his disillusionment with the leadership, John Kerry apparently performed his duties in the Mekong Delta extraordinarily well. Douglas Brinkley clearly makes this point in the excerpts from Kerry's writings that appear in "Tour of Duty." I'm not politically aligned with John Kerry, but he deserves my respect and great credit for fulfilling the responsibility for which he volunteered in the face of such personal anguish and doubt. The natural consequence for Kerry was that the experience propelled him into antiwar activism and possibly energized his political career. The Vietnam War engendered similar personal conflict for many of its participants, including me, and each had its own unique outcome. But Kerry's story is especially important for what it reveals about him as a candidate for President and what he might do about our ongoing war in Iraq.
I spent May of 1968 through May of 1969 in the Mekong Delta as a member of the 9th Infantry Division and the Mobile Riverine Force (MRF). I arrived there as a well-trained, career-minded Infantry Airborne Ranger first lieutenant. My service began with a stint as an infantry platoon leader, and I next served as a liaison officer in the MRF's tactical-operations center aboard the flotilla's flagship, the Benewah.
I had experiences very similar to those described by Kerry. His description of being helplessly mired in the hip-deep mud of one of those delta canal banks, with people shooting at him, made me shudder once again from the memory of the absolute vulnerability of the situation. And I empathize with his dismay over the leadership.
In the end, "Vietnamization" was the doomed-from-conception charade created to extract us from a politically untenable situation. It certainly made me change my tactics. I gave the welfare of my men paramount consideration, over missions that held no value given our stated abandonment of military victory as a goal.