The Need to Know

A review of TDY by Douglas Valentine

Early on in this “based on a true story” book, Pete, narrator and central character, says something important to understanding it as a human document. “I wish I could tell you more about Rusty, José, and Taurus,” he says wistfully. “I wish I could fully develop their characters and entertain and enlighten you with snippets of our repartee. But we never had any clever conversations, and after our initial introduction we stood there looking at each other, not knowing what to say … In fact, just as Taurus and José started unpacking … the guards came by and told Rusty and me to return to our room and wait for further instructions.” This is just the first of a series of surprises that Pete experiences as he travels further into the extreme adventure inside what appears initially as an ordinary 30-day temporary duty assignment, but it points to the thematic heart of this cautionary tale oddly related to the old military truism that one should never volunteer. By the time Pete and the photo-techs and their protective security team approach the C-130 that will fly them to their own heart of darkness, surprise becomes shock as they enter a plane whose windows have all been painted black.

Those of you who have read works by Doug Valentine such as The Hotel Tacloban will recognize a key theme that appears in TDY as well —  secrecy. It has often been observed that secrecy and democracy do not mix. True democracy requires transparency but when organizations such as the Central Intelligence Agency come into being there’s an anti-democratic element let loose in the inner workings of the nation. What is intriguing in reading TDY is that though these four enlisted men are required to refrain from any fraternization, nevertheless they do become more fully realized, especially in the manner of their deaths during a secret mission in the spring of 1967 just as the wars in southeast Asia are escalating to their horrible and tragic climaxes. In effect, how they conduct themselves during the mission becomes the revelation of who they are.

The elements of this book fit together like the layers of an onion, each one surrounding and making opaque the layers beneath. It’s like a detective story, a Vietnam War version of Chinatown, the impact of which depends on twists which are part of protecting the secrecy of the mission and the ignorant innocence of the American public. Four otherwise rather unremarkable guys are introduced to beyond “state of the art” photographic and sound-recording equipment. Each stage of the mission has its own disclosures. At first it appears they will be flown to the Philippines for a Photo/Recon mission, but that’s only one part of the mystery. The Security Team that makes certain that the Recon Team never gets to know one another constitutes a kind of flak jacket that protects the technicians from the dangers they have no awareness of until they find themselves laying an ambush for NVA regulars. In effect, the “need-to-know” measures taken to ensure secrecy suck the meaning out of the experience of the mission itself for the men who are asked to pull it off. Being kept ignorant is a kind of local anesthesia.

And yet the overall mission leader, a man known only as “the Major,” does stand out as an extraordinary character with all the leadership qualities and skills needed to organize an incursion not in the Philippines but in an undisclosed area of southeast Asia where the recon technicians will photograph and sound-record an event planned and orchestrated by a mysterious sub-section of military intelligence, not against the North Vietnamese enemy but one element of the U.S. national defense establishment against another. The Major is able to recruit Montagnard tribesmen through a blood-ritual, to plot a course toward an objective fifteen klicks away through dense jungle to a mountain plateau which is both a poppy plantation and an airfield for the surreptitious cargoes of an Air America C-123, guiding a security team armed with enough firepower to take down an entire company.

It is not this reviewer’s job to offer spoilers on the intricacies of what happens during this secret mission. But it is possible to suggest the significance of the whole structure of the narrative. There is a parallel to be found in Charles Baxter’s 1997 study, Burning Down the House: Essays in Fiction in which he makes the claim that Richard Nixon’s memoirs are the most important influence on contemporary American fiction; i.e., his inability to take responsibility for his crimes, his insistence on the absolute “deniability” of his actions, his blustering attempts to place the blame for Watergate on others. If the traditional function of the novel has been to reveal or suggest meanings, then what happens to the novel when the characters are toxic narcissists? It’s not that there is no motive to unravel; rather, there is only one, a hollow self-aggrandizement. The raison d’être for the nation becomes the political well-being of its imperial President.

Deniability is the one essential characteristic of any CIA activity. Deniability is the “sinkhole of meaning,” at least in existential terms. The meaning of one’s life is measured by the choices one makes. In The Hotel Tacloban, Doug Valentine’s father is willing to take responsibility for the choices he’s made, but the U.S. government takes away his choices and their meanings in order not to endanger peace with Japan after World War II. He is threatened with a life sentence in Leavenworth if he reveals his part in the murder of an officer of the British Army in a prisoner-of-war camp in the Philippines.

Doug’s father’s military record was erased and replaced by a sanitized version; the same happens to “Pete.” He is threatened with assassination to keep the secret of the CIA’s involvements in the drug trade in southeast Asia, drugs that make their way back to the streets of cities in the United States. The people of the United States are not deemed trustworthy of knowing the truth about America’s enemies or what the agencies entrusted with protecting those people must do in order for that security to be maintained. Meanwhile, the whole basis of the United States as envisioned by the revolutionaries who founded the country — that policies should be based on clear, accurate information and that there be reasonable, measured evaluations of the challenges that face the nation. Those get replaced by rumor, innuendo, and propaganda that evokes people’s basest fears. Pete is left with nothing but the memories of the deaths of the Major and the U.S. and Montagnard crews and a cryptic excuse that “the Agency has its own way of getting things done.” That is, absent a complete and convincing set of evidences, the U.S. military establishment isn’t going to press charges.

In effect, TDY enacts a very special kind of mission — the robbery not of one’s private property but the potential meaning of life. Life is reduced down to the narrow parameters of the secret mission which Pete carries out but then must “forget” so that the mission can be “deniable” in order to protect the organization he agreed to work for. What he is left with, if anything, is some reflections on human weakness (a $2500 bonus as a down payment on a Ford Mustang which Pete imagines as his girl magnet — a lust for money which will enable the satisfaction of his lust for sex) which as he looks back were what he risked his life for. He mourns the lives of those of his teammates who did not survive the mission and whose “evidences” were placed in a cardboard box and stored in a warehouse outside of Langely, VA. Inside that box may also be Pete’s memories. He may come to realize that the “no fraternization” rule has left him with no painful goodbyes to his team members because he never really knew them. The compensatory hope lies in the reflection that eventually the truth does come out in the form of a cautionary tale. First the fiction, then the reality.

Bill Tremblay is a poet and novelist. His work has appeared in nine full-length volumes and in one novel, The June Rise. Read other articles by Bill.