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Rambo comes marching home

Fiction's aging Vietvets

by Mark Schreiber

“I broke down on the flight back from Vietnam, went crazy, shouting, screaming. It took several men to restrain me. . . . For years it was all I could think about, going home. Then when it finally happened, I snapped.”

“I’m sorry. Did you ever consider professional help?”

“No, but I should have,” he said. “I know that now.”

The above, from “Gecko” (Bootleg Press, 2003) by Jack Priest, introduces a character named “Monopoly Jim” Monday, recipient of the Silver Star, Navy Cross and the Congressional Medal of Honor. To stay sane while in captivity, Monday played the board game “Monopoly” in his head. Today — remember this is fiction — he’s a real estate magnate in Long Beach, California. And he would still probably benefit from professional help.

Works of hard-boiled fiction about emotionally twisted Vietnam veterans who survived the war, only to return home to an ungrateful nation, began appearing on U.S. bookstands even before the war ended. In 1972, the year Richard Nixon sent bombers over Hanoi, David Morrell published “First Blood,” basis for the first of three Sylvester Stallone films (a fourth is presently in the works), which was released in 1982.

In Morrell’s novel, John Rambo, a special-forces veteran, while passing through a small town in the U.S. northwest, is mistaken for a vagrant and hassled by a redneck chief of police. Mistreatment at the hands of deputies triggers memories of the torture Rambo underwent while a POW. He snaps, escaping from the town jail and fleeing into the nearby wilderness, where he manages to hold off a small army of cops and military reservists who pursue him. Eventually Rambo winds up destroying half the town.

Civilian cops, it seems, are no match for a merciless killing machine whose survival skills were honed to perfection in the jungles of Southeast Asia.

As the national angst over the Vietnam war spread into cinema, Vietvets such as John Rambo, or Travis Bickel (played by Robert De Niro in the violent 1976 film “Taxi Driver”), were portrayed as walking wounded — gothic tales about zombie-like men unable to exorcise the demons of their past.

Now in their mid-50s and definitely showing signs of aging, their survival skills have still not deserted them. Robert Crais’ L.A. private eye Elvis Cole and his partner Joe Pike are both decorated veterans. In “The Last Detective” (Ballantine books, 2004), the kidnapping of the son of Cole’s love interest appears to be motivated out of revenge for something that happened to Cole in Vietnam. (A bloody battle scene is told in flashback.) But as Cole was his unit’s sole survivor, who’s left to come gunning for him?

Nelson DeMille, who saw combat in Vietnam as an infantry officer, has produced two novels related to the war. His most recent and better of the two, “Up Country” (Warner Vision, 2003), involves army CID investigator Paul Brenner returning to modern Vietnam in the guise of a tourist to shed light on the murder of an American officer that took place during the notorious Tet Offensive of 1968.

Michael Connelly’s series’ character, an L.A. homicide cop named Hieronymus (“Harry”) Bosch, grew up in foster homes after his mother was murdered, and wound up in Vietnam as a “tunnel rat” — one of a band of small, wiry and very tough men whose jobs involved pursuing enemy guerrillas into booby-trapped subterranean tunnels. In “Lost Light” (Warner Vision, 2003), four toughs with shotguns follow Bosch to his home in an attempt to kill him. As Connelly writes:

I had nothing to use as a weapon except a shard of old iron pipe. Still, it was enough. I had survived more missions into the tunnels of Vietnam than I could remember. . . . And I had lived and worked for twenty-five-plus years on the streets of this city with a badge. This kid was going to be no match for me. I knew none of them would be.

Despite the willingness of these middle-aged Vietvets to engage in violence, hardly any kept on refining their martial skills after returning home. One exception would be the protagonist of “Avenger” (Thomas Dunne Books 2003), by British author Frederick Forsythe. Cal Dexter, another former “tunnel rat” famed for his uncanny skills, occasionally slips away from his legal practice to work as a lone wolf mercenary whose identity, like a comic book superhero, is kept hidden. Hired to pursue a vicious Serbian war criminal who has surrounded himself with bodyguards in a fictional Central American country, Dexter shows himself to be a master of subterfuge.

The literary Vietvet most capable of wreaking mayhem at the moment is Barry Eisler’s assassin for hire, John Rain. Since his debut in “Rain Fall” (Signet, 2002), the half-Japanese, half-American martial-arts expert has snapped necks and bludgeoned heads in two subsequent works.

Books on the exploits of Vietvets may constitute a sort of “Bridges of Madison County” for middle-age thriller fans. While these aging veterans have enjoyed a good run, the time is fast approaching for them to hang up their M16s and move on to a well-deserved retirement.