It’s early in Bruce Junior West’s novel on the Vietnam War when the headmaster of a small village’s Buddhist school makes a quip that challenges everything a newly arrived U.S. serviceman thought he knew of the country in 1968.
“We have no priests,” Ong De tells the 23-year-old Navy Seabee from San Luis Obispo in “Auspicious Journey: A Gift of Peace in a Time of War.” “Each father is a priest. Each home is a shrine.”
“He meant that everything is sacred,” West said on a recent evening as the sun’s remaining light sliced through the blinds of his studio overlooking the hills of Atascadero. “In Western civilization, nothing is sacred. We tend to turn the sacred into the profane.”
West grew disillusioned after witnessing firsthand the destruction and futility of the U.S.’ war in Vietnam in 1968, a year when the Tet Offensive devastated villages and U.S. bases across eastern South Vietnam and ultimately caused American military brass to re-examine strategy there.
He may not have been entrenched in the jungle as a member of the Navy Construction Battalion — also know as the Seabees — but West was on the front lines.
A combat engineer assigned to assist the people of South Vietnam through the military’s Civic Action Program, West spent much of his tour of duty working amid the fog of war to improve life for the residents of Hoa An, a village in Quang Nam Province east of the ancient port city of Da Nang, not far from the demilitarized zone that split the North from the South.
His role as a civic action officer allowed him access to places and people most GIs never saw nor met. It led him to Ong De, who became his mentor and closest friend in the country. “Auspicious Journey” is dedicated to him.
The story’s main plot takes place in a village far from the Central Coast of California, but the author’s time spent on a horse ranch with his wife overlooking the sunny hills of San Luis Obispo — and his desire to return to her in one piece — feature prominently.
After one deferment and a graduation from Cal Poly, the Fort Dodge, Iowa, native joined the Navy in an attempt to avoid Vietnam.
West said Vietnam was the “right place” for him despite the ugliness he witnessed in the war, and if not for his deep love for his wife, Connie, he may have stayed.
The story he sets out to tell is that of the competence and grace of the locals, and how they managed their lives amongst the tragedies that accompany war.
If their stories were told as often as those of soldiers, he writes, people might think harder and longer before going to war again and again.
After retiring from a 37-year career as a San Luis Obispo County Probation officer in 2010, West began writing the novel, his first, as a memoir.
“There’s a saying in writing that you have to open up the wrists and just let it bleed out,” West said. “But it was too close, getting all this out of me. I had to take a step back.”
So West replaced he and his wife’s names in the book, but he says the remainder of the novel is based on his own true story.
“Every veteran’s experience is unique and personal,” he writes. “Each deserves to be honored and remembered in its own right.”
‘The Beast of War’
This is not your typical war story.
West said he drew inspiration from Joseph Conrad’s “Lord Jim” and Thomas Dooley’s “Deliver Us From Evil.”
At times, West’s narrative captures the colorful chaos of Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” and its surreal film adaptation, “Apocalypse Now.”
But perhaps a closer comparison to the central conflict of “Auspicious Journey” is the Oliver Stone Vietnam War film “Platoon,” in which American servicemen, led by two opposing sergeants, engage in a moral war between themselves.
“In reality, those two sergeants could easily be the same person: a hero in the morning, and a real son of a bitch in the afternoon,” West said. “I could have been Colonel Kurtz easily in that war, or not come home.”
In the novel, the civic efforts of West’s alter ego, Dan, are stymied by a cynical, corrupt and sadistic Senior Chief and his circle of cronies, who loathe the Vietnamese and who abuse their power for increasingly sinister purposes.
West said he’s not fond of most big screen portrayals of war, but Stone’s film was the closest to his wartime experience, in which some U.S. soldiers are the good guys — attempting to rise above the brutality and exploitation while also staying alive — and others have intentions that are clearly not good.
The story is often brutal and cruel. Vietnamese children are used as target practice by U.S. soldiers; prostitutes are raped and beaten for entertainment; Dan is chastised as a sympathizer with the enemy.
One the American deserters who occupy a lawless swath of jungle outside boundaries of the village is tortured and dies in a horrific fashion, a memory that West said still deeply affects him.
A witness to many of these atrocities, West writes that Dan becomes “disgusted of his own race.”
The novel’s action comes fast, without warning — and without glory — like a DC-6 falling from the sky.
“That’s just the way it was. There was no prologue for any of that,” West said. “It’s not like the movies; you don’t have any control.”
Dan spends the Tet Offensive of ‘68 in a machine gun tower, firing his .50-caliber machine gun — “Mr. Cool” — at an unseen enemy across a pitch-black night.
But the story is not about warfare, or even about atrocities committed in Vietnam. It’s ultimately an ode to the Vietnamese people West met in villages like Hoa An.
West presents a rich portrait of young and old characters from the village, elders and children who come to trust him as he repeatedly returns with supplies and works to rebuild damaged buildings and construct bridges, even after he loses his partner early into the story.
There’s Do Ti Thuan, a young student whose father was assassinated by the Viet Cong, for whom West’s Dan encourages a squad of military truck drivers to scrape enough money together to fund a scholarship.
There’s the elder Ong Trong, a colorful old man in impeccable mandarin dress, who glides in carefully measured steps over the muddy paths of Hoa An.
But West’s friendship with Ong De, the headmaster at the Bo De School and the fixer of sorts for the village, is perhaps his most enduring memory of Vietnam.
In one of the last conversations an increasingly frustrated and disillusioned Dan has with Ong De, the latter explains the concept of the yin and yang — “two fish in water doing a dance.”
“When we think of the yin and yang in the West, we think good and evil, just because that’s what we know,” West said. “But Ong De helped Dan put the pieces together that everything’s connected and everything’s sacred. That there’s energy that’s flowing and moving, and that life and death are the same part.”
After a tragic incident leaves two children dead, Ong De explains to Dan: “Sometimes we must accept what is so we can prepare for what’s next.”
“(Dan) was fascinated by these people, and (Ong De) opened the door to Asia for him,” West said.
West hasn’t seen Ong De since he left the country. He doesn’t know if he — or any of the villagers — survived the war and its aftermath.
“There’s a whole generation that are gone,” he said.
Shortly after returning to the U.S. from deployment, he said, he received a letter from Ong De via the fleet post office, asking for help. But there was no mail service to the village of Hoa An; no way to communicate with him.
“I knew I could not help him,” West said.
Like many veterans, West feels guilty that he made it out of the war. He said that when he has nightmares about it, it’s about the people he says he abandoned.
“(Ong De) was my dear friend,” West said. “Thank God I can dedicate this book to him so I don’t feel the guilt.”
‘Tantrums of old men’
Throughout the novel, soldiers are constantly reminded that, during the chaos of ‘68, cities back home were burning.
Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, sparking civil unrest in more than a hundred cities across the U.S. The groovy vibe in the air during the Summer of Love the previous year was gone.
West said the timing of his work is not a reflection on current political climate or events, but the casual reader may find the similarities striking.
During a meditative moment while briefly AWOL, it strikes Dan how Vietnam was “another battlefield in America’s endless civil war within itself.”
“This builds up inside of us,” West said. “And we dump our anger on them. On these people that can’t defend themselves.”
West said other recent wars, like Vietnam, were based on lies and the result of the “tantrums of old men.”
The father of two and happy grandfather of five hopes readers will take away from the book that war is horrible, and that the public is best served when they’re aware of the true cost of it all.
He said that when a soldier returns to a culture that denies death — the true bounty of war — the soldier who is shrouded in death can never really come home.
“It’s a terrible thing to do to anybody, certainly someone we’ve asked to do this for us, to abandon everything they were taught about what’s right and what’s wrong,” West said. “It’s a cruel joke.”
The book features original artwork by Atascadero resident and former Tribune graphic designer Beth Anderson. In addition, West contributed to The Tribune photographs taken by his friend, battalion photographer Michael Peacock, who captured the few images West has of the people of Hoa An.
A member of the international nonprofit Veterans For Peace, West will be attending the organization’s annual conference Aug. 15-18 in Spokane, Washington, and hopes to hold a workshop on the work. Copies of the book will also be available there.
He is currently working on a sequel to “Auspicious Journey,” which he says will focus on the time shortly following his return to San Luis Obispo.
“Auspicious Journey” was published by Hawkeye Publishers and is available at Barnes & Noble in San Luis Obispo, as well as online.