"A Voice of Hope"
By Thomas Flynn
Voice Book Productions
P.O. Box 1575
New Port Richey, FL 34656-1575
1994. 184 pp. $6.99
"Stories," Vietnam novelist Tim O'Brien has written, "are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can't remember how you got from where you were to where you are" (The Things They Carried ).
To paraphrase O'Brien, I'm forty-seven years old and a professor now; but a long time ago, I was a Marine corporal and a patrol leader assigned to the Combined Action Program (CAP) in Vietnam. Now, thanks to this book, Thomas Flynn's unvarnished memoir of his CAP service, I have a much clearer understanding of the things I've carried, and that have carried me, from there to here.Long-time readers of this magazine may recall that I too published a CAP memoir; my two-part article appeared in 1988, in the January and February issues. I titled my article "Tiger Papa Three," after the radio call sign of Papa Three, the combined- action unit I served with. Tom Flynn, as it turns out, was also a Papa-Three Marine.
Flynn had been a member of the original start-up group and had been badly wounded and evacuated in the first attack on Papa Three, some two months before I got there. He was apparently back on duty with the company headquarters in Cam Lo for most of my tour with Papa Company, but we never met.
As I recount in my article, the Papa Three of my time--August 1967 to January 1968-- was a dismal failure. Anyone still interested in the reasons for that failure should turn first to Flynn's account of Papa Three's first six months. But his story is certainly much more than a preface or "prequel" to mine. "A Voice of Hope" stands alone as an honest and unaffected account of a former CAP Marine who suffered and almost died in the name of Combined Action."A Voice of Hope" traces Flynn's progress through his Vietnam tour--from reporting to Staging Battalion at Camp Pendleton to lifting off from Danang in a C-130 thirteen months later. He was initially assigned to Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines, in and around Camp Carroll, where he spent a largely uneventful two months before the regiment was tapped for rotation back to Okinawa.
Flynn, however, was not destined to go with it. All Marines new "in country," Flynn soon learned, were being reassigned to other units; and he in particular had been volunteered for a program he knew nothing about called "CAC"-- short for "Combined Action Company."After a short stop at the Combined Action School in Phu Bai, Flynn found himself one of the original group sent north to found Papa Company, the unit charged with establishing CAP units about five miles south of the DMZ in the vicinity of Cam Lo. It was Flynn's fate to become a charter member of a combined-action platoon assigned to a small hamlet located just off Highway 9, about halfway between Dong Ha and Cam Lo. This was the unit designated Papa Three.
Flynn's story, then, covers the inception of Papa Three; the first attack on the compound, in which he was almost killed; his hospitalization and recuperation; the second attack, in which he was a member of a reaction force that rode to the rescue from company headquarters in Cam Lo; and his eventual transfer to the battalion headquarters in Phu Bai, which by that time was regularly coming under rocket attack.The result is an amazing story of courage and endurance, simply told by raw talent. The only thing remotely "literary" (in any formidable sense) about Flynn's book is the obvious irony of the title. As Flynn remembers it, the CO's welcome-aboard speech at the Combined Action School in Phu Bai included a stirring promise that the Marines assigned to live and work in villages alongside the Vietnamese Popular Forces (PFs) would be the "peoples' voice of hope."
As with my account, however, "the people" put in only cameo appearances in Flynn's book. In all fairness, villagers and PFs alike do seem to have been generally more receptive to our presence during Flynn's time than mine. He recounts, for instance, how the village hosted a dinner to welcome the Marines soon after they arrived; and he describes how one PF in particular hugged him upon his return from the hospital and seemed genuinely glad he had survived after all. But just as telling in what he includes is what he leaves out.If Flynn made any close friends among the Vietnamese, he does not develop those friendships in the book, nor does he address how the PFs performed, either during routine patrols or the two attacks on the compound he was witness to. It now seems evident that the diffidence I described, leading to the breakdown in Marine-PF cooperation in the later Papa Three, was an understandable response of the villagers and PFs (who were themselves villagers) to the way in which the VC infrastructure had asserted itself in the two major attacks on Papa Three. The Marine presence had obviously provoked a reaction and a consolidation--leading, if not to more willing support of the enemy, at least to a more effective pattern of intimidation.
But these are my inferences. Like me, Flynn seems to have been aware of working across an almost insurmountable cultural gulf with inadequate resources of both material and personnel. Unlike me, Flynn never editorializes. He simply gives us a vivid first-person account of his Vietnam experience from beginning to end, limiting the point of view to what he knew at the time and letting the facts speak for themselves.
The result is a marvelously vivid account that, to my mind at least, recalls the way we were. Pedants may grouse at the frequent mistakes in basic English. (Unable to interest a mainstream publisher, Flynn had the book privately printed. His manuscript, obviously, stood in need of a good copy editor.)
But as even those of us who teach English are forced to admit, good writing finally depends upon larger issues than spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Good writers, to paraphrase a couple of authorities in the field, have an instinctive knack for recognizing and effectively reporting the "facts that tell." Flynn more than fills this bill; and what lapses there are, to my mind, only contribute to the creation of an authentic voice.His account of the first attack, for example, is plainly told, yet inherently dramatic and fast-moving. He is, in the telling, perhaps somewhat impressed with himself in describing how he was able to wrestle a knife away from and stab a VC who would have stabbed him. But he goes on to describe how, in the next moment, he was shot through the face and rendered fairly helpless from that point on.
Readers expecting to find the hardened heroes and the hype of other Combined Action accounts will be disappointed throughout Flynn's book. He does not indulge in macho-posturing in describing either attack, nor does he affect the sort of dissociation popularized in Vietnam fiction. The Flynn who, when new to the war, feels sick at seeing his first dead body, still feels sick, months later, at witnessing the cold-blooded killing of a wounded VC who won't come out from behind a bush. The remarkable thing, of course, is not so much that he still felt this way but that he has the integrity to tell us how he really felt at every step of the way.That a combat Marine, who had himself been seriously wounded, could retain some vestige of his humanity, of course, flies in the face of today's "approved" view of the war as a totally dehumanizing experience. This is not a book for the politically correct. The "PC" police, eager to impose the sensitivities of the present on the past, would also be horrified to discover that "A Voice of Hope" contains an ethnic joke. Only the most rigid ideologue, however, could disapprove of the use to which Flynn put this joke.
"A Voice of Hope" is both a moving human-interest story and an important cultural artifact for anyone seriously interested in researching both the strengths and weaknesses of the Combined Action Program. Moreover, Flynn tells me that "A Voice of Hope" has recently caught the interest of a literary agent. Should the book find a mainstream publisher, I would recommend that Flynn expand it in the areas of day-to-day life and Marine-PF relations. I would also urge him to include a bit more about himself and how he came to join the Marine Corps in the first place, as well as an epilogue describing how his life has gone since Vietnam.
I predict that Flynn's "Voice" will find a good publisher and the wider audience it deserves. In the meanwhile, anyone wishing to read the book in its present form can get a copy by sending $6.99 directly to Flynn's Voice Book Productions at the address listed above.