By Dick Cummins
Author Dan Guenther and his reviewer Dick Cummins both happen to be Iowa Writers’ Workshop grads, but that’s only coincidental. Ideally, good writing will always find its audience. We’re just trying to support the process. This review is also available on Amazon.
China Wind by Dan Guenther is a novel in the form of daily journal entries by fictional Marine Lieutenant Sam Gatlin. It begins in Quang Nam Province on May 24, 1968 and ends with a final entry seven months later as Lieutenant Gatlin is waiting for a transport to fly him back to the world.
When I got to Gatlin’s summer entries of 1968, I couldn’t help contrasting them with what I was doing at home then which was covering the riots at the Democratic Convention in Chicago for a college magazine. To say I was ablaze with anti-war and anti-draft passion would be an understatement.
Lieutenant Gatlin’s world was a little different from mine. Here’s an example of how his morning went on July 21, 1968.
Captain Watley says, “… he’s a VC … Division says it is in the national interest to snuff him.”
“Who said that in Division?”
“You dare to question me?”
“You just ordered Atrey to snuff a prisoner. That’s bs and you know it . . . Let’s go!” I said to my men, sensing what was about to happen . . .
“Atrey!” he yelled. “. . . I want you here! The others can go.”
“Yes sir,” Atrey said, looking at me for help.
I shook my head . . . my experience in Vietnam . . . had already shaken my beliefs about things like human dignity, honor and the presumption of a higher purpose. I would have to redefine everything.
A single pistol shot rang out, Atrey blew on the smoking barrel of his 45 and walked away . . .”
It wasn’t long after this incident that a map-reading, by-the-book, Division HQ officer dresses Lieutenant Gatlin down for not keeping his men up to Marine disciplined spit and polish spec—fighting in the jungle.
Soon there comes an order for the lieutenant to set up his amphibious tracks as a decoy to take fire and expose a VC ambush position. I couldn’t help imagining him trying to explain this order over the radio to his men as they positioned their vulnerable tracks on a muddy trail inviting the RPG attack.
Then, after molten slag rips through one of his tracks and kills the driver, Lieutenant Gatlin has to write a letter home to the boy’s parents and tell them that their brave son died to help keep Americans at home safe from the little brown men that killed him.
There are gripping combat scenes and unforgettable details in this book, some bizarre and almost comic details too; a prototype “rocket” pistol (real weapon—not fictional) that silently fires rocket-propelled bullets and is used to kill a spy. Then there is the fish attractor built by a Marine electronics expert for an officer who loves bass fishing at home; it ends up attracting a huge ball of poisonous sea snakes into the Bay of Qua Nang when tested, sending the little floatilla of curious Marines paddling back to safety on the beach.
Not comical are the intrigue and betrayals in China Wind, good men and women dying violently—as they did, and will again, in all wars, adding to the feel of reality in this battle-hardened page-turner.
The central metaphor of the book is that cold wind blowing down each winter into Vietnam from China, that before her death, the beautiful character Sky Lady says changes everything:
“Americans like China Wind. Blow very hard one direction . . . then sure to change.”
And Lieutenant Gatlin suspects that she, like all the Vietnamese he meets in the book, may be spying for the north.
This book is the first volume of writer Guenther’s three novels called the “Lost Viet Nam Trilogy.” In his second book Dodge City Blues, the author has an ah-ha moment:
“We’ve lost our moral authority here. There’s no way to win their hearts and minds without that.”
Finishing the book, I sat thinking about Guenther’s metaphorical China Wind; for me it had become an anti-colonial tempest, the same nationalist gale that blew the British out of India and the French out of Vietnam and then Algeria too.
There is a “when will they learn” philosophical feel to this book because writer Guenther is a “thinking man’s warrior”—wondering about the difference between the creative combat tactics he has to come up with in the jungle to save the lives of his men versus the “mysterious” strategic planning going on back in “Division”—the “big picturing” back in the nice safe Pentagon in DC.
“Much of the time we didn’t understand the big picture or know what to believe,” he says.
After reading this I could see Lieutenant Gatlin staring down at a table covered with tactical jig saw puzzle pieces, yelling for someone to please, please show him the damn picture on the puzzle box— because it could save the lives of his men and possibly his own!
My opinion is that all three of Guenther’s Lost Vietnam Trilogy novels should be required reading for the Master’s program in Strategic Studies offered at our National War College.
A few years ago my wife and I walked along the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in DC with over 58,000 names engraved on it of the men and women who died nearly 40 years ago in country—a country that is now one of our favored exporting trading partners.
Domino theory? Go figure.
Read China Wind first and then everything that Dan Guenther, former Marine Captain and Vietnam veteran has written—you’ll be entertained AND enlightened.
And a little melancholy is all right too.
Dick’s postscript from the home page of The Vietnam Veterans Memorial:
“If you are able, save for them a place inside you and save one backward glance when you are leaving for the places they can no longer go. Be not ashamed to say you loved them . . . take what they have taught you with their dying . . . and in that time when men . . . feel safe to call the war insane, take one moment to embrace those gentle heroes you left behind.” —Major Michael Davis O’Donnell, Killed in Action, Dak To, Vietnam