THE LAST PHOENIX, by Carl Douglass, is an historical novel that exactly fits my interests. I am a military history buff, and I like the way the author has combined a wide perspective with a narrow one from the point of view of a single individual and his immediate companions, friends, and enemies. I was greatly helped by the table of contents, cast of characters, glossary, and short bibliography without which I would have found it difficult to keep track in this complex and highly interwoven book.
Karl Isaacson is large, raw-boned boy growing up in an obscure Utah town, not unlike most country boys in the United States as it stands on the brink of a war with an obscure little country in Southeast Asia called Viet Nam. Few people know where it is located, but everyone knows that by the domino theory, communism will topple country after country until it controls all of Asia, if not all of the world, and the evil empire has to be contained. None of that means anything to Karl. He has his own problems trying to get along in a town that is hostile towards him because he does not belong to the dominant religion or the dominant ethnic background. He is a young Swede in a mean-spirited Danish settlement.
Karl is an orphan, and he has an unruly temper. Both of those qualities conspire to get him into trouble, and trouble gets him engineered into the army rather than into jail. He is underage—sixteen—but it is not too difficult to make a few alterations, and his documents put him at eighteen. The army accepts him, and he flourishes in boot camp. One day, a recruiting agent from the CIA determines that Karl is perfect for the agency’s purposes—fit, strong, patriotic, unexposed to un-American ideas, and most of all, has no family ties. He is expendable.
He is taken for extensive training in all of the arts of survival and killing at The Farm—the CIA’s training site for clandestine officers. He is tested by participating in an operation against a South American communist family, and passes altogether acceptably. He is given a new identity—that of Anders Bergstrom, a representative of the Swedish Red Cross--and flown to Saigon. There he is assigned to the Riverine Patrol where he becomes a warrior in every sense of the term and becomes ready for his CIA career as a Provincial Reconnaissance Unit Cadre Officer [PRUC/O] and begins operations to interdict, arrest, kidnap, turn, torture, or kill Viet Cong—whatever is necessary to weaken and finally to defeat the indigenous South Vietnamese insurgency. Every day is a risk and a fight for Anders and the members of his PR unit.
Members of the unit come from all walks of Vietnamese life. Some refuse to cooperate with the Americans just as they did with the French. Their fate is to die or to be transported to Con Son Island prison—the most brutal and pestilential penal establishment in the history of the world. Those who see the light and become ralliers [turncoats] and willingly join the ranks of the PRUC, are repatriated into South Vietnamese life. The permanence of that decision is punctuated by them having a tattoo over each breast which says, “kill cong” and another tattoo on the back in the form of a phung hoang [Vietnamese style phoenix bird, in this case one holding a computer paper scroll in its beak with the list of Viet Cong who are being hunted down relentlessly]. Because none of the men can trust anyone outside their unit, the Americans and Vietnamese cadres bond to each other as only men in combat do.
Because the nation—both nations—are corrupt, the men magnify their trust to smuggle heroin for drug generals living in the Golden Triangle, and they become rich during the ten years they fight and die for each other, as opposed to fighting for their countries. Anders has friends now as he never did before. Their names are: Y’Yool, a Montagnard; Nguyen Lui Tran, former VCI; Phan Duy Ky, a member of the Bui Doi—children of the dust, street orphans, most of whom are career criminals; Sergeant Le Duc Bach, former Kit Carson scout; and Nguyen Van Dung, former NVA sapper. Together they patrol, engage in skirmishes, arrest and interrogate suspects, and frequently their mission is to kill VCI members and supporters. After the Tet Offensive of 1968, very few Viet Cong are left, and in the joint military and PRUC mopping-up efforts, the VC is almost entirely devoid of power. The NVA is not ready to launch an invasion from the north, and the war can be considered to have been won by the Americans and those few true South Vietnamese Army patriots who actually engage in the struggle. However, American public opinion turns violently against the War in Viet Nam, and that social and political force is able to wrench defeat from the jaws of victory.
The waning months of the war place the PRUCs in a deadly crossfire. They remain survivors, essentially living off the land and carrying out near suicidal missions, depending only on themselves. They are not acknowledged by America and are obliged to find their own way out after that fateful day, April 30, 1975 when America turns tail, and betrays the CIA field operatives and their families to the mercies of the invading North Vietnamese Army. The PRUCs of Anders’s unit have made themselves rich and to have the resources to seek revenge. That revenge is terrible and is carried even to America. Some of the primary agents of the carnage of that misbegotten war finally see justice.
The book is long, complex, and rich with details of military battles, assassinations, loves, family life, intrigue, geography, tradition, and history. Certainly all of that is too much to include in this short synopsis. The story is something of an allegory in which a boy and his country go to war to right wrongs, to preserve freedoms, and to save lives; and they fail at every goal. Both the boy and the country descend into a heart of darkness where all that is left is national disgrace, the gall of bitterness, shame and maltreatment of the boys and the country who went there in all good faith and lost their innocence—to say nothing of the devastation and near annihilation of the innocents in country.
-Karl L. Nielson
Director, Fennemore Craig Jones Vargas
Former President, Clark County