Many people have asked me if Word of Honor is autobiographical. Considering that the protagonist, Ben Tyson, is accused of instigating a massacre of civilians while serving in Vietnam, the correct answer is "No."
There are, however, some similarities between Ben Tyson and the author, mostly in regard to the short military careers of the fictional Tyson and me. Tyson and I were both infantry lieutenants with the famed First Air Cavalry Division, our tours of duty in Vietnam both encompassed the Tet Offensive in that memorable year of 1968, and we both shared many of the same experiences, thoughts, and beliefs. But unlike Lt. Tyson, I was not wounded in action, and my men did not participate in any atrocities.
On the home front, Tyson and I both live in a pleasant suburban village on Long Island, but beyond that, our domestic and professional lives have no similarities.
Ben Tyson is, in a way, the universal American citizen-soldier; he reached military age at a time when his country was at war, at a time when young men were still drafted into the Armed Forces, and he found himself taken from his comfortable American life and thrust into an unspeakable horror for which he was totally unprepared. This is, then, a story that millions of men and women can relate to.
Word of Honor was first published in 1985 by Warner Books, and though the Vietnam War had ended some ten years before, the aftermath of that war and those times was still coloring how we thought and how we acted as a nation. Vietnam was a war that grew larger in the national psyche even as it receded further into time.
Word of Honor was published to wide critical acclaim; was a Main Selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club; was sold to Hollywood, where it passed through a series of producers and screenwriters who couldn't seem to get it right; was translated into two dozen foreign languages in Europe and Asia; was put into audiobook form; and has been in continuous print since its debut. This last fact is what most pleases an author: the knowledge that new generations are reading and hopefully appreciating and learning something from his novel. Interestingly, Word of Honor, though fiction, is assigned reading in some college courses about the Vietnam War. I recall that in a college class I took in the 1960s dealing with the Second World War, I was required to read two novels: Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead and Irwin Shaw's The Young Lions. I still have more vivid memories of these two fictional accounts of the Second World War than I have of the textbook readings or the military memoirs that I struggled through. The same, I think, can be said for other classic war novels, such as The Red Badge of Courage, All Quiet on the Western Front, or War and Peace. This might suggest that fiction can sometimes be more educational than fact. Certainly this is true of all good war novels because war novels by their nature are parables, and parables are instructive and, hopefully, memorable.
In any case, Word of Honor is not precisely a war novel, but it is a novel about war's aftermath. It is a story of love, survival, loyalty, betrayal, and, ultimately, redemption. It is not literal truth in the sense that these things happened to specific people in just the way I described, but it is still the truth in the sense that the characters in the novel represent a generation of men and women who all had experiences such as those described in the book. The Vietnam War that I describe is real, and my description of the major events at the Battle of Hue is real. What I hope is most real are my characters, who act and react from the highest and most noble principles on some occasions and at other points display all their human weaknesses, fears, and prejudices.
The Vietnam War still has the ability to divide us as a people, and I was aware of that when I set out to write this novel. I purposely took no sides, made no judgments about the war (I hope), and tried to put the politics into perspective. I had the advantage of hindsight in this regard, the luxury of a cooling-off period, so to speak.
Partly for this reason, the book was well received by reviewers and readers across the political spectrum. Friends and acquaintances from both the political left and right thought it validated their opinions and beliefs. Finally, readers' letters confirmed that I had struck the right balance. An author would like people to read his novel and think about the issues raised; books that are thrown down in disgust are obviously not read and do not instruct, illuminate, or invite debate.
An honest and fair appraisal of Vietnam was almost impossible in 1968 and in 1985 when my novel was published, and it may well be almost impossible today. With that in mind I concentrated on the human tragedy of that war and focused on the moral and legal questions of a specific act—a massacre—and in doing so left open the larger questions of Vietnam. One could say this same story could have been written about nearly any war in which this country was involved or will be involved.
But to be completely honest, as a soldier who saw combat in that specific war, I was well aware then, and am more aware now, that all wars are not created equal. As Thomas Mann wrote in The Magic Mountain: "A man lives not only his personal life as an individual, but also, consciously or unconsciously, the life of his epoch and his contemporaries." For me to be totally uninvolved or majestically above prejudice or judgment is not only unrealistic but would also be somewhat dishonest. So to avoid dishonesty, whenever I consciously let my own judgments or prejudices creep into the narrative or dialogue, I was careful to create dialogue or narrative that gave the other side of the same issues. Since this is a book without villains, the good guys and the good women often surprise themselves by seeing and speaking both sides of the debate. In fact, this is not so surprising or difficult for anyone who has ever taken a formal debating course and been asked to defend the indefensible.
I'm often asked if writing this book was a catharsis for me. It certainly was not while I was writing it. In fact, not unsurprisingly, it brought back too many bad memories. I had left Vietnam in November of 1968—although the war was brought back to me every day on television until the North Vietnamese entered Saigon in April 1975. It wasn't until the early 1980s that I began to put the experience behind me. By that time I was married, had two children, and had achieved some success as a writer. I had thought about writing the Great Vietnam War Novel, but I knew that most publishers weren't interested in Vietnam novels in those days. Even though the natural impulse of a man who has been to war is to talk about it, at least among friends and ex-vets, or to write about it, privately or publicly, this was one war that no one wanted to hear about.
Ironically, it was Hollywood that opened up the issue with some striking and successful war movies, such as Coming Home, The Deer Hunter, Platoon, and Full Metal Jacket. The publishing industry, while not exactly soliciting manuscripts on Vietnam, was at least willing to talk about war novels after these movies.
But had I written a Vietnam novel in the 1970s—and a few were written by others and published—it would have suffered a fate worse than the characters in the novel. Not only was the country not ready for an important and balanced look at this national tragedy, but neither was I. My notes taken during the war and afterward seemed to point toward two kinds of stories: One was a traditional blood-and-guts, action-oriented novel; the other was a too political, bitter, and alienated book. Quite possibly I would have experienced some catharsis and some spleen-venting by writing either of those books, but the public does not pay to read an author's attempts at self-psychotherapy.
By 1985 the country and the author had calmed down a bit. My ex-hippie, war-protesting friends were making money in the Reagan boom; my conservative, pro-war friends were doing a little coke and saying things like "No son of mine will ever go to war."
The men and women of my generation didn't completely give up their beliefs, but they certainly modified them to match new realities. More important, as we aged physically and grew, I hope, intellectually, we realized that the younger generation was somewhat clueless concerning who we were, what we had believed in, what we had fought for or against, and what had happened to us as a generation and as a nation.
By 1984 I knew without a doubt that the time had come for me to write about Vietnam. The decade of relative silence was coming to an end; the anger, the shame, the divisiveness and the hatreds were fading. This was good and this was bad. To sublimate a national trauma is one thing—to have national amnesia is another.
In any case, I, like many other authors—veterans and nonveterans alike—was ready to deal with the issues in fictional form. In other words, the long-delayed war novels were starting to be written.
But as I sat down to write, I realized to my complete surprise that I didn't want to write a war novel. It simply wasn't working. It took me a few months to comprehend that what I wanted to write was a novel of the war, not about the war; a novel that sprang out of the postwar American experience, a story that everyone—soldiers, civilians, and the generations then unborn—could understand and relate to.
And so I created Ben Tyson, combat veteran, suburbanite, husband, son, father, employee, neighbor, friend, and citizen. His war, like my war, was nearly two decades behind him. When we meet him, he has gotten on with his life and is relatively happy and prosperous. His wife, Marcy, is a former college radical and war protester, and their marriage typifies the uneasy truce between the two halves of a once polarized nation. His teenage son, David, is blissfully ignorant of the fiery cauldron that formed his parents' lives. The lives of Ben, Marcy, and David, as well as of their contemporaries, are a picture of the calm after the storm.
But there are skeletons in Ben Tyson's closet. The closet is figurative, but the skeletons are real; they lay in the ruins of a hospital in Vietnam—over one hundred men, women, children, and babies, massacred by troops under the command of Lt. Benjamin Tyson. But there are only a handful of people still alive who know of this.
And this is part of the universal appeal of Word of Honor—the skeletons in the closet that we can all relate to: the things we've done that we got away with at the time but that haunt us and threaten to reveal themselves at the worst possible moment.
Which is exactly what happens in this story. An author named Andrew Picard publishes a book called Hue: Death of a City, about the Battle of Hue during the 1968 Tet Offensive. In that book is a description of Lt. Benjamin Tyson whose platoon massacred the above-mentioned hospital full of men, women, children, and babies—nuns, wounded enemy soldiers, civilians, and foreign medical personnel.
What Tyson thought was the calm after the storm turns out to be the eye of a hurricane.
But what exactly did happen at that hospital? We think we know from the testimony of witnesses and from Andrew Picard's book. However, what looks like an open-and-shut case starts looking different as other witnesses give conflicting accounts. In other words, like the Japanese play Roshomon, the same crime is described from different points of view, and we begin to wonder if any crime at all was committed. Are witnesses lying, or are they blocking out the trauma, or does position determine perspective? Or all three?
As the story progresses, Tyson's ghosts come back to haunt him, but we know that this is just what he needs. We understand that catharsis sits at the end of a bumpy road. But for some people, catharsis is not enough, or not the goal after all. Ben Tyson needs redemption in both the secular and spiritual sense of the word. And redemption is harder to come by than catharsis or forgiveness or a not-guilty verdict.
So, was the writing of this book a catharsis for me? Yes and no. Yes in the sense that it was good to get a lot of this pent-up war stuff off my chest; and no in the sense that by concentrating on the writing of this story for a full year, a lot of the forgotten memories came back. I didn't experience anything that could be described as Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome, but certainly there were many days when I was out of sorts after a particularly intense writing episode. Also, I had the occasional war dream, which I hadn't had in years prior to beginning this book.
But after the book was completed, I think it did me more good than harm, and I hope I can say the same for my readers.
In January of 1997, I returned to Vietnam for three weeks with two friends who had also served there during the Tet Offensive.
In early February we arrived in the city of Hue on the eve of the lunar New Year—the Tet Holiday. It had been exactly twenty-nine years since the start of the Tet Offensive that had so changed our lives and changed the course of the war.
We checked into a three-star hotel, making the appropriate jokes about how the accommodations in Vietnam had gotten better since our last visit.
Later, we went out into the city and joined the celebration of the New Year. We ate, we drank, we watched the fireworks and the dragon dances, we spoke to the people and patted kids on the head. We told some fellow Americans about the Tet Offensive in 1968. We went to bed very late, very tired, and a little drunk. I had no war dreams that night, and I woke up in a fine mood, except for a little hangover. My traveling companions reported no nightmares either.
After I came home, I realized that the return trip to Vietnam had been emotional and a little sad to be sure, but it had not been traumatic and had not produced any nightmares while there or afterward. So, in the words of William Manchester, "Goodbye Darkness."
In one passage of my novel, Tyson's attorney, Vincent Corva, says to Tyson, "Let me tell you something—let me reveal to you the one great truth about war, Mr. Tyson, and it is this: Ultimately all war stories are bullshit. From a general's memoirs to an ex-Pfc's boasting in a saloon, it is all bullshit. I have never heard a true war story, and I never told one, and neither have you."
And so, with that fair warning, I invite you to read this war story that isn't true and isn't even a war story.
Long Island, New York
Lieutenant General William Van Arken, the Army's Judge Advocate General, flipped through the personnel file in front of him. "I see he has two Purple Hearts. Score one point for Mr. Tyson."
Fraser Duncan, from the Secretary of the Army's office, looked at Tyson's medical file and commented, "Both wounds were superficial. Score only half a point."
Herbert Swenson, an aide to the Secretary of Defense, observed, "He has the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry, awarded by the Vietnamese government for actions at Hue. That could get sticky."
Thomas Berg, a presidential aide, looked down the long, polished mahogany table. He said, "We were discussing the question of possible court-martial. Let's talk about relevant facts."
General Van Arken, sitting at the opposite end of the table, replied, "Mr. Berg, if you have ever witnessed a court-martial, you will know that is what we are doing."
Berg shrugged. He turned to Peter Truscott, a young attorney from the Justice Department. "I gather from what you've said that the Attorney General is not interested in pursuing this case."
Truscott stayed silent for longer than was considered polite, then replied carefully, "I didn't actually say that. I said it is a shaky case from a legal standpoint, Mr. Berg. Also, the Attorney General feels the matter is specifically military in nature."
Berg looked up and down the table at the four men present in the windowless room, located in the interior of the building. Green-shaded lamps illuminated the places where the men sat, leaving dark gaps at the long table.
The outer fringes of the large room were in darkness, and the only sound that penetrated the room was the susurrant rush of the air-conditioning ducts. Dark things, thought Berg, belong in dark places.
There was no stenographer present, and Berg had seen to it that there were no tape recorders in the room. No one was allowed to take notes. This was an unofficial, ad-hoc group whose agenda memos and daybooks showed they were meeting to discuss better methods of interdepartmental communication, which in fact they had discussed for about two minutes. And except for Van Arken, they were representatives of their respective government offices—special aides to their bosses. The feeling in the White House had been to keep it low-key. The subject of Benjamin Tyson, if anyone ever asked, had never come up.
Fraser Duncan spoke directly to Berg. "Could you give us some insight into the White House's thinking on this?"
Berg rubbed his lip thoughtfully, then replied, "The President knows nothing of this. His military aides asked me to prepare a background briefing in the event it becomes necessary to bring this to the President's attention. The President's only interest in this would derive from his position as Commander in Chief." Berg thought he ought to temper the lie and added, "His political aides are obviously concerned with the political ramifications of the case. No one has forgotten Nixon's part in the Calley case." He added quickly, "But politics are not the issue. The President's legal aides want to insure that the President acts in a legally correct manner each step of the way."
Berg looked at Van Arken, who as a young major had been on the prosecution staff in the My Lai case. Berg said to him, "We are here because so little precedent exists for this type of thing in this country—and thank God for that. In fact, with the exception of yourself, General, no one here has had any experience with war crimes, and no one is quite as sure of himself as you are." Berg saw a few smiles around the table.
Van Arken replied with forced civility, "I'm fairly certain that eventually this will land in my lap, and the Army will be obliged to proceed with a court-martial. If so, then I, too, want to be certain that we don't have a recurrence of the Calley-Medina fiasco."
Berg nodded. "So does the White House, General." Berg had taken the time to read Van Arken's file and to ask questions of people who knew the man. Van Arken was fifty-five, young for his position. He was military in his bearing, language, and attitude, an oddity in the Judge Advocate General's Corps, where the opposite qualities were held in some esteem.
Berg saw that no one was going to speak, another oddity in a government meeting, so Berg said, "Gentlemen, what we've established so far is that legally an officer can be tried for a murder, or murders, committed by his troops, depending on the circumstances. We've also noted that there is no statute of limitations on murder. Beyond these two elementary facts, we have not discovered anything. We can't even be certain a capital crime has been committed."
The General's voice carried loud and clear across the room. "Based on what we've all read in this Hue book, we have every reason to believe that some sort of capital crime has been committed."
Swenson said irritably, "Certainly you don't believe everything you read."
Van Arken replied with less assurance, "No, sir… but you can't come away from reading that without getting some sense of… of a criminal act." Van Arken sipped on a glass of water. "As in civilian law, where there is information or suspicion that a violation of law has occurred, then an official investigation must follow."
Berg had realized early in the meeting that Van Arken was disposed toward a full criminal investigation, rather than an unofficial fact-finding committee as the White House had hoped. Clearly, the man was out to make a reputation for himself; or to live down his previous reputation regarding the Calley-Medina trials. However, the Tyson case, more than the Calley case, had trouble written all over it. Not only domestic political trouble, but international problems as well. Berg said to the group, "As I understand it, there is a question of jurisdiction involved here. It is the opinion of the Justice Department that no state or federal court has jurisdiction in this case."
Truscott nodded. "That's correct. The alleged crime happened in a foreign country. The alleged perpetrator was at the time a member of the armed forces. However, he is not now a member of the armed forces. And that's where the problem lies."
Berg turned to Van Arken. "General?"
Van Arken stayed uncharacteristically silent for a few seconds, then said, "As Mr. Truscott indicated, the alleged crime was committed while the suspects—and I include Tyson's troops, of course—were subject to the provisions of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. There's no doubt about that. My opinion is that whether or not they are so subject at present is irrelevant—"
Truscott interrupted, "It is not irrelevant, General. It is crucial. Tyson, we know, is not in the Army now. The others may or may not be. We will find out. But the Army is not going to try civilians. Not ever."
Van Arken replied calmly, "Do you mean to tell me, Mr. Truscott, that if some of those men are still on active duty, only they will be unfortunate enough to be tried for murder? Will the civilians go free for the same crime?"
Truscott began to reply, but said instead, "The question is probably moot. Let's find out first if any of these men are still on active duty."
Van Arken continued, "All right, assume none of them are. Tyson we know is a civilian. So how must we change the jurisdictional status of these men?"
Truscott didn't reply, but Berg said, "You're suggesting, of course, that we call these men back to active duty."
Van Arken nodded. "Mr. Truscott is correct. The Army cannot and will not try civilians. Therefore, we cannot even begin an investigation of Mr. Tyson, but we can investigate Lieutenant Tyson."
There was silence in the room, then Berg said, "I've been advised that this question of a serviceman becoming a civilian before a crime has been discovered has never been fully resolved to anyone's satisfaction. It's apparently a glaring gap in our system of justice. Therefore, we must legally resolve this point before we proceed."
Van Arken added, "Every decade or so something like this comes up, and we are unprepared for this question of jurisdiction. Most of these past cases involved crimes of little importance. Here we have a crime of immense proportions, with implications beyond our borders."
Berg said, "Thank you, General. I think we realize that."