Webb's 'Soldiers': Vietnam -- vividly

October 14, 2001|By James Asher | By James Asher,Sun Staff

Lost Soliders, by James Webb. Bantam. 367 pages. $25.

Thank you, James Webb. Your newest book, Lost Soldiers, is terrific.

Lost Soldiers is, of course, about Vietnam. Not the Vietnam of back then. Not the booby traps, the napalm or the carpet bombs. But the Vietnam of now, the nation still living with the ghosts of so many dead. Reconstructed, reunited and pursuing a future for its people, the Vietnam Webb describes is seductive, seeking its own political and economic version of progress. But at each step forward, Vietnam's life remains haunted by what we called a conflict and what they called a war of liberation.

The winners of that war, Ho Chi Minh's followers, have supplanted the entire South Vietnamese hierarchy. Relegated to second-class citizenship, the warriors, bureaucrats and allies of the United States are truly the losers. They live, according to Webb, in poverty, excluded from whatever social improvements await Vietnam.

Add to this mix Vietnam's general reluctance to confront the messy side of its liberation.

In this pot of emotions, Webb's main character begins his pursuit. Nicknamed Cong Ly (Vietnamese for justice), Brandon Condley has had an affair with Southeast Asia since his time as a soldier in Vietnam. An expatriate, who did his share of dirty work in and after the war, Condley's task is to find the remains of servicemen missing and presumed dead since 1975.

That job unearths a new mystery about old atrocities.

Lost Soldiers is about Condley's new pursuit and about the unlikely allies he wins along the way. In his quest for justice, even a vilified South Vietnamese officer wins acceptance from the new social order.

This novel is hard to put down. The story is excellent. The writing is excellent. The dialogue is excellent. As one who cut his political teeth in the anti-war movement of the 1960s and '70s, I was transported by Webb's novel to a nation I knew a lot about, but never saw. It was as if I were there.

And that is hardly surprising. Webb, a decorated combat veteran who served in Vietnam and later became secretary of the Navy, is fluent in Vietnamese. As a lawyer, he has done pro bono work for the Vietnamese community since the late 1970s. He also is the author of five novels, two of which are being made into films.

Such literary talent is impressive. Yet for me, I appreciate Webb's ability to weave a story about war, violence and love without relying on cheap sensationalism. His scenes of violence are not gory, yet they are riveting. His scenes of love are tender without titillation. His depictions of war are factual without traces of trivialized violence.

Webb is a writer's writer. And for that, his success is much deserved.

James Asher is an editor at The Sun and a former editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer. He has been writing for newspapers for more than 25 years.

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