This is probably the most powerful crime novel I’ve read in years, but I’ll tell you now, it’s not for the squeamish. Many of the characters in this novel have no souls or are flawed in some fundamental way the is broken beyond mending. Gibson French, the son of a police detective and an overprotective mother lost his older brothers to the Vietnam war, one to death, the other–Jason–to horrors that changed him into an unknowable man.
Jason comes home after serving time in prison and wants to get to know Gibson (Gibby). They drink beer, they meet women, they talk. Innocent, enough, right, until a young woman dies in a horrific fashion and Jason is the presumed killer. Detective French doesn’t want Gibby to be influenced by Jason, much less drawn into probable crimes and the wrong crowd.
All of Hart’s novels are memorable. No doubt, the family dynamics made The Unwilling difficult to write. This novel is, perhaps, his best, though I think it was more gritty than it needed to be. But, given the characters, perhaps not. I am happy with the ending, though the characters and the novel’s readers go through hell to get there.
Around the edges of the plot, we have Vietnam’s My Lai massacre and the prospect that it wasn’t the only war crime that happened during the war. Jason knows but hasn’t been willing to speak of it.
Gibby comes of age–in spades, one might say–and, the wonder of this novel is that he survives the process. In fact, perhaps his parents also survive the process. These are strong characters, a twisted plot, and issues that will stick with the reader long after the last page of the novel is reached. That’s what makes good fiction.
“We the unwilling, led by the unqualified to kill the unfortunate, die for the ungrateful.” – Unknown Soldier
The U.S.S. Nimitz has returned to the United States after a record-setting 99,000-mile deployment of almost a year. Even though our Vietnam-era aircraft carrier deployments lasted nine months, I have a notion of how the sailors on board feel during the approach to Bremerton, Washington.
While carrier deployments are always dangerous, they usually don’t face the risks our ships faced during World War II. Nonetheless, I doubt most civilians have the faintest idea what it’s like to be gone 9-12 months aboard a Navy ship. Some sailors aren’t happy when people come up to them in airports and on the street and say, “Thank you for your service.” It comes down to “thank you for your service” sounds like a throw-away phrase similar to “how’s it going?”
The first time I came back from Vietnam, the ship arrived at the former Navy base in Alameda, California. Those near the pier were happy to see us, consisting mostly of family and friends. The second time I came back from Vietnam, I flew home for a change of duty assignment. As the military got off the plane, we had to walk a gauntlet of protestors jeering at us, spitting on us, and calling us baby killers.
Thank goodness the sailors and marines on board the Nimitz didn’t face that kind of “greeting.” On the other hand, in the 1960s, we came home to a world we knew–people who hated us–while today’s sailors are coming home to a world that’s changed since they left: COVID.
COVID is probably worse because it’s killed more people at home than are dying in most theaters of war. What a paradox.
I remain hopeful that President Biden will bring the troops home from Iraq, Afganistan, and the war of nerves and posturing in the South China Sea. I think the costs of all that in dollars and lives are unnecessary and that our efforts are better applied to problems at home. We need not police the World.
As a pacifist, I wonder why more people don’t feel the same way instead of acting angry, unaware, or ungrateful to those who go in harm’s way.
You’ll save $3.00 off the regular price if you download my Kindle navy novel At Sea during the next several days for only 99¢. Check its listing late tonight or Friday for the sale price.
Amazon Book description
Even though he wanted to dodge the draft in Canada or Sweden, David Ward joined the navy during the Vietnam War. He ended up on an aircraft carrier. Unlike the pilots, he couldn’t say he went in harm’s way unless he counted the baggage he carried with him. As it turned out, those back home were more dangerous than enemy fire.
Inspired by my experiences on board the USS Ranger (CVA61)
Unfortunately, the Navy saw fit to scrap the historic USS Ranger rather than proactively helping convert the aircraft carrier into a viable museum. Through my fictional account, I hope that some of the ambiance of shipboard and liberty port life will live on in this novel.
From the novel
The Pacific Ocean filled multiple Bluehorse and Silver Bear composition books with an assortment of facts and lies about David’s two cruises to the Western Pacific aboard the “top gun” aircraft carrier. Both cruises began and ended at Alameda, California, with a primary destination of Yankee Station one hundred miles off the coast of South Vietnam, where the aircraft carriers and other ships of the “Gulf of Tonkin Yacht Club” assembled for combat operations.
As the crow flies, Yankee Station lay 6,448 nautical miles across the blue water from the California coast. When the exercises and operations and port calls were factored into the distance, the carrier steamed about 86,000 miles per year. The ship was at sea 225.9 days in 1968, with 124 days engaged in Special Operations (SPECOPS) at Yankee Station, 61.7 days in transit, 8 days in major fleet exercises, and 32.2 days in minor fleet exercises. The ship was at sea 215.5 days in 1969, with 98.5 days of SPECOPS, 57 days in transit, 8 days of contingency operations, and 52 days for minor fleet exercises. There were 15,871 arrested landings in 1968 and 14,000 arrested landings in 1969.
By rough calculation, in 1968 and 1969, while the flight deck was secured from flight operations, David spent roughly 500 hours standing on the port side catwalk near the stern of the ship just aft of the ladder that rose up from the hangar deck past the public affairs office on the 03 level. There the ship was quiet, except for the ever-present pulse of the engines, as he stood alone with the sea. There was much to think about: two deaths, two novels, a prospective fall from grace, a marriage, and a spiritual decision.
Standing on that catwalk, he was awash in photons because the Creator, like his romantic disciple J. M. W. Turner, was a “painter of light.” All that was wrong with the world, like the monsters in Turner’s “Sunrise With Sea Monsters,” was scarcely visible because the light had not yet become heavy enough to become water, much less the darker creatures beneath the surface.
I hope you enjoy the story.
Malcolm R. Campbell is also the author of “Sarabande” and “Conjure Woman’s Cat.” Both books are available in paperback, audio, and e-book editions. See my website for more information.
My Vietnam War navy novel At Sea will be free on Kindle March 18-20, 2016.
Description: Even though he wanted to dodge the draft in Canada or Sweden, David Ward joined the navy during the Vietnam War. He ended up on an aircraft carrier. Unlike the pilots, he couldn’t say he went in harm’s way unless he counted the baggage he carried with him. As it turned out, those back home were more dangerous than enemy fire.
Here’s a short excerpt to tempt you out to Amazon. . .
David stood on the back porch on a spring evening listening to the slow sweet rising and falling howl of a wolf calling her pups while the wind stilled and the dark lavender lupine flowers disappeared into the gathering twilight. Behind him, the house was empty, his dinner long gone cold on the kitchen table along with the passionate Sparrow singing his chanson favorite “La Vie en Rose” again and again, and rather than stare at the letter in the silent company of canisters and chrome appliances, he brought the telephone and pinot noir outside where the world was less closed in on itself.
At the end of the long cord, he dialed her number, wondering—while the wolf pups yipped back at their mother—if her hello would still sound like her hello.
“Davey, how nice to hear your voice. I also hear wolves. Where are you?”
“On the porch looking down toward the box elders and the creek.”
“Don’t remind me. It hurts too much.”
“How are you?”
“Fine. I knew you would call. While practicing my flute this morning, I found myself playing a song we once knew.”
“I’ve lost myself to the war,” he said. “The letter arrived today. I report in July.”
“Davey, no. What do your parents say?”
“Not to rock the boat.”
“I hoped you went to Sweden with Brita. Then I heard the wolves.”
“I could never come home from Sweden.”
“If you die in Vietnam, I’ll forget you. If you survive, you’ll forget yourself. Either way, the vine may kill the elm.”
“You’re cold,” he said, “and dragging out old symbolism of fruitful grapes smothering their supporting tree.”
“Then stand quiet with me again.”
The wolves were silent. He heard her breath and her heart. The first stars were out. When she was at the ranch four years ago, she said, “Night is liquid magic; we’re stirred together. You’ve taken me beyond myself, higher than the wolf trail stars, and what we have of each other, we own.”
In the great quiet, he wept for the parts of himself that were no longer his.
“David, the baby’s crying. I’ve got to go.”
“Unfair! But I love you, Anne.”
“No doubt,” she said, hanging up and extinguishing the moon’s pure light.
He carried the wine bottle up to the chokecherry tree, sat beneath white flowers and watched the night where he once watched it with her.
She knows I’m here, he thought, because she knows me well. She despises me, too, because she believes some places are sacred.
He got an axe and chopped down the tree. It was neither the best thing nor the worst thing he’d ever done, but it was close.
If you’re a Kindle Unlimited subscriber, you can always read the book for free through Amazon’s program. If you’re not a KU subscriber, now is a great time to download a novel about sailors and bar girls and mountain climbing and a young man wrestling with his conscience about military service.
When I became a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, the primary issue was conscription. The secondary issue was the concept of an unjust or unnecessary war. The draft ended in 1973, but the concept of needless wars did not.
Today, many who are willing to join the military to protect the country, become uncomfortable–as many did during the Vietnam War–with combat and casualties which appear to serve no viable purpose. In recent years, people have asked the same kinds of questions about Iraq and Afghanistan that were once asked about Vietnam: should we be there?
In the 1960s, many of us sought practical help from the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors (CCCO) and their handbook which outlined how to apply for a CO status and outlined the kinds of questions one would be asked if they did. This group is more or less no longer active.
Today, if one is against all wars and rejects even non-combatant participation, then (if you’re a man) you still have to register with the Selective Service Commission. However, as long as enlistment is voluntary, there are fewer issues to face unless you disagree with the concept of registration.
If you join the military and consider conscientious objection due to the role you’re being asked to play, two organizations can help you sort through what (if anything) you can legally do. You will see on their sites routes you can take along with information about such issues as the so-called endless war, the morality of drone strikes, and even the militarization of police forces.
The Center on Conscience & War is a non-profit organization that advocates for the rights of conscience, opposes military conscription, and serves all conscientious objectors to war. Founded in 1940 as the National Interreligious Service Board for Conscientious Objectors, CCW can help you find alternative service to the military and/or help you through the maze of regulations should you wish yo file as a CO.
The American Friends Service Committee, where many of us also went for help during the Vietnam War, is an active organization today with multiple programs. Their programs seem more extensive than those of CCW, because they address such things as the refugee problem and the military budget.
Today’s conscientious objectors hope to see rights and procedures codified into law rather than remaining dependent on the regulations of military branches where they can be and have been suspended for various reasons. Larger issues, such as the demilitarization of police forces, the legality of drone attacks, and solving refugee problems by addressing basic issues causing conflict rather than looking at refugees as charity cases are in my view outside the conscientious objector framework. (That is not to say that we shouldn’t address them.)
I wrestled with the problems–and stigma–of becoming a CO during the 1960s and think that many of the same issues are with us today even without the draft.
The issue is by no means settled and the stigma is by no means gone.
Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “At Sea,” a novel about a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War.
And indeed there will be time To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?” Time to turn back and descend the stair, With a bald spot in the middle of my hair – (They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”) My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin, My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin – (They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”) Do I dare Disturb the universe? In a minute there is time For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
Julia “Butterfly” Hill disturbed the universe for 738 days by sitting in a 1,500 redwood tree from December 1997 to December 1999 to keep the 180-foot tree from being cut down. Her efforts saved the tree. Though many people, including those who agreed with her, said she was carrying her protest to an extreme level, the very nature of what she did attracted attention, garnered support, and that resulted in an agreement that saved the tree. In spite of one attack by morons with a chainsaw, the tree is carrying on its long life.
Most of us wouldn’t have done that because when all was said and done, the practical ramifications of sitting in a tree for two years would have probably made us unemployable, not to mention the loss of income that would have bankrupted us. There is so much noise in the world, that it’s hard to know what any of us can do or say to disturb the universe enough to make a difference. Today, authors hear that “it” is all about “platform.” One has to have a “platform” filled with Facebook and Twitter and blogs and Pinterest and LinkedIn to have any hope of seeling books. The trouble is, everyone else is out there in the same social media trying to sell their books. It’s hard not to get lost in the crowd.
Anyone who wants to follow his or her beliefs and passions and work for meaningful change is likely to feel just like the writers who are trying to sell their books: what must I say or do to be heard? Fortunately, there are many organizations we can associate with that will help us be heard as part of a group. If you want to fight to save redwoods, for example, you can join the Nature Conservancy, the Sierra Club, the National Parks and Conservation Association and many other groups. Many of them want hands-on help as well as your donations and your help in letter-writing campaigns.
In 1967, I came within several breaths of going to Sweden to avoid being drafted and forced to participate in a war I did not support. I had the means and the opportunity. The reasons why I didn’t are both complex and unclear, but within the context of this blog, my leaving the U.S. (and being banned from coming home for many years) would not have changed U.S. policy in Vietnam. If I had been famous, perhaps living in Göteborg might have either changed a few people’s minds or convinced everyone who knew me that I was nuts.
It’s a hard call, I think, to figure out the difference between running away and leaving because you cannot accept what your country, town, company or organization is doing. I absolutely cannot accept the United States’ policy of using drones to kill people it doesn’t like in foreign countries. In my view, that is unconstitutional and in violation of international law. This practice hasn’t been discussed very much in the Presidential race because few people are upset enough about it to disturb the universe. And, like those of us who have considered sitting in trees or moving to Sweden, we’re more likely to scuttle our own universes rather than impacting the national debate.
I would like to disturb the universe when it comes to the use of drones in sovereign foreign countries, the spying on Americans done with little uproar based on so-called “security reasons,” the mistreatment of the environment, the intrusion by governments and religious groups into a woman’s personal rights, and a dozen or so other issues. But I never quite know how.
The Quiet Approach
Whenever my frustrations about issues get too strong, I use every relaxation technique I know to pull myself back into what I believe is an essential truth: as Joseph Campbell said “We’re not on our journey to save the world but to save ourselves. But in doing that you save the world. The influence of a vital person vitalizes.”
Seriously, we’re not burying our heads in the sand when we admit that we cannot save the world. While some people will make very noticeable positive impacts, most of us will have to take a quieter approach. Perhaps we’ll donate some money to Planned Parenthood or we’ll add our name to a petition about oil pipelines through sacred Indian lands or we’ll spend the weekend with a volunteer group that’s clearing brush and deadfalls off a national forest or national park trail.
And who knows, there the ripples from such quiet actions influence. The universe we must dare to disturb, I think, is ourselves. Are we following our beliefs? Good, then doing so may impact a friend and then a neighborhood and after that, who knows who will step aside from their busy day-to-day life to help. We’ll probably never meet the people we influence, but that doesn’t matter. We won’t have a page in wikipedia that tells the world who we are and what we did. That doesn’t matter either.
The hardest thing is, perhaps, that first step. Are we following our beliefs? If not, we need to disturb ourselves greatly. Once that happens, the universe that matters will never be the same again.