Friday, June 8, 2018

I was saddened to learn that photojournalist David Douglas Duncan passed away yesterday, June 7, 2018, at the age of 102. He had lived life with such gusto, as only one who takes the risks he took can do, in the thick of combat covering wars for over thirty years, on almost every continent. No photojournalist, before or since, has consistently captured the grimness and despair of battle like David did. Between these wars, he showed us the great joy and beauty in life. His opus, Photo Nomad, is a stunning photographic chronicle of the twentieth century.

In early June 2004, as I was preparing my first book, A Patch of Ground, for publication, I wanted permission to use a photograph that he had taken of Captain Baig, and the other “brain trust” officers, together in the Khe Sanh command bunker during the 1968 siege.  I initially contacted a person at his publisher, HarperCollins-NYC, who advised me that Duncan still owned the rights to all his photos and provided me with his address in France. I wrote to him immediately, and eleven days later he called. When I picked up the phone, the first thing I heard was David’s ninety-year-old, curmudgeonly tone that sounded like a question, but was actually a statement of fact: “Mike, so you didn’t get your ass shot off at Khe Sanh, huh.” I have included in The Gunpowder Prince part of our conversation with regard to Captain Baig, and so will not replicate it here. David then asked me what Baig had done after Khe Sanh, and whether he was still alive.  I filled him in on that tragic scenario and later that day mailed him a copy of Ray Stubbe’s monograph on Baig, The Mongol Prince (I had no idea at the time that I would be writing Baig’s story twelve years later).

David, a Marine officer in World War II, who had covered American troops fighting in that war, and the war in Korea, ended his thirty-year career as a combat photographer at Khe Sanh. That decision was not based entirely on his now being in his fifties and the grueling physical strain of battle that was beginning to take its toll on him. The fact was that, while David had seen countless dead and wounded American soldiers in his decades of reporting, his sobering, iconic February 1968 photo of body bags lined up beside the fog-shrouded Khe Sanh runway waiting for evacuation to some distant morgue, seemed to have been the last straw in reining in his anger and disappointment at what America was doing in Indochina. Soon after leaving Khe Sanh, David would produce two books, War Without Heroes and I Protest!, condemning the Johnson administration for, what David said was, their having changed the criteria for going war from the traditional, unfortunate, last-resort decision to preserve national security, to a lucrative business practice.

Fifteen years earlier in 1953, nine months before the French defeat at the hands of the Viet Minh Army at Dien Bien Phu, David produced a prophetic piece for Life magazine, titled “Indochina All But Lost.” As such, he was enormously frustrated to still be photographing war in that land, so many  years later at Khe Sanh.  Yet, he was unflinching in his admiration for the troops who served, as many a Khe Sanh vet who benefited from his kindness over the years can attest. 

While David’s reputation would have permitted him into the inner circles of world power, he preferred being out among common people, among common soldiers and artists like himself. What saddens me the most is not just that the world has lost such a rare talent, but a person who possessed the honesty and intellectual courage to state the truths he’d learned from his vast experience, irrespective of the bleating of more fearful, insulated and devious souls. Because of that, later in his life more doors closed for him, than opened. 

David thanked me for requesting permission to use his photos, because, he said, many people used them without extending him that courtesy. I then heard his wife call him for dinner. He said they were “having a chicken and rice dish with a very good sauce on the chicken” (considering he lived another twelve years, to age 102, this recipe might be the elixir of lifeđŸ˜‰).

Before we said our goodbyes, David said, “I suppose you would like something [about the permission] in writing?” I said I would appreciate that. I’m attaching below a link( "Duncan Reply")  to that wonderful message, handwritten boldly on the second page of my original request letter.  As you can imagine, it has warmed my heart each time I’ve come across it in my files over the years (NOTE: To clarify two things in the text of my letter, the working title of my book at the time was “Murmurs,” which was promptly rejected by my publisher a few weeks later as being too “artsy-fartsy” [a decision for which I am eternally indebted to him]. Also, I subsequently learned how to properly spell Lieutenant Colonel Hennelly’s last name).

One last item, actually a confession that I need to make; one I did not tell David about, though I’m sure he’d have found it amusing:

Earlier on a February 1968 evening, just before David shot the photograph I was requesting to use, he had been standing outside at the entrance to the command bunker chatting with Gunnery Sergeant Leon Risch, a salty Korean War veteran, about David’s age. Coincidentally, I was just then reporting for my radio shift and before I left my own bunker I had too-hurriedly put on my web gear, including my utility belt, which held sundry items like bayonet scabbard, ammo magazines, bandages, etc. The belt was buckled in the front by inserting a metal hook into an eyelet. In my haste, I had not secured the hook all the way in, and, as I arrived at the edge of the cement steps that descended into the command bunker entrance, the belt suddenly unlatched and all the gear attached to it slid down to my ankles causing me to trip and tumble head-first down the stairs. I landed at the feet of Duncan and Gunny Risch, and, as gunnies are traditionally known to do, he immediately unleashed a torrent of profanity chastising me for my clumsiness.   The commanding presence of the famous David Douglas Duncan loomed above me in silence; but his eyes eloquent in the unmistakable squint of  “Old Corps” disdain.

I’m relieved to finally get that one off my chest.       

Rest in peace Mr. Duncan. Thank you for allowing us see the world through your eyes.

Duncan reply

Friday, May 18, 2018

Post-publication Reflections on The Gunpowder Prince: How Marine Corps Captain Mirza Munir Baig Saved Khe Sanh.

For all sad words of tongue and pen,
The saddest are these, 'It might have been'.
- John Greenleaf Whittier

I have gone over in my mind countless times the thought of what Captain Mirza Munir “Harry” Baig might have accomplished had he survived all his dangerous counterintelligence missions in Southeast Asia, and the tragic circumstances of his death in 1971 at age thirty-nine. Harry’s short life and career included him honing his remarkable intellect while obtaining a law degree from Trinity College in Cambridge, England, and an MBA from McGill University in MontrĂ©al, Canada, before entering the U.S. Marine Corps in 1958—as a lowly private. Given the rapid and lofty trajectory of his accomplishments, there is a good chance Baig would have risen to positions of great responsibly within the U.S. intelligence community.

His mother, Juliette Jamil, was a member of a well-connected Anatolian family and had studied at the American University in Beirut under special patronage of King Faud of Egypt. Her brother, Selim Jamil, had gained notoriety for his assistance to the American army during the First World War, and later conducted highly sensitive missions working with the U.S. State Department and Office of Strategic Services (forerunner of the CIA) during the Second World War. Harry’s father, General Osman Baig, was the son of British colonial knight Sir Abbas Ali Baig, who was a personal friend of King George V. Osman had commanded an Indian Colonial Army division guarding the strategic Khyber Pass during the Second World War, and later became a versatile and highly respected Pakistani diplomat. Osman’s brother (Harry’s uncle), Mirza Rashid Ali Baig, was an Indian soldier, scholar and diplomat, who had, among his many later duties, served as India’s ambassador to The Philippines and Iran. Rashid authored several influential books under the name M. R. A. Baig, including The Muslim Dilemma in India, Viking House, 1974.

Harry’s father-in-law, Count Nicholas de Rochefort, appears to have recruited him into the intelligence business.  As a member of one of France's oldest families, with ancestor Guy de Rochefort earning fame during the First Crusade in 1095, Nicholas served as a captain in the French Army during the Second World War. He was captured by German forces and later escaped and rejoined Allied forces. After the war, de Rochefort, who spoke five languages, edited a periodical in Morocco before beginning a lecture tour in the United States in 1949. Five years later, he renounced his French citizenship and title and became a U.S. citizen. Now, an expert on psychological warfare, Nicholas served on the faculty of the American University, and as a research analyst at the Library of Congress for the Agency for International Development (USAID) which maintained a close working relationship with the CIA. Harry’s brother, Taimur, would graduate from Harvard and become an executive with the World Bank.

In addition to these several unique, widespread and highly placed connections, by the early 1970’s, Harry had developed a stellar reputation within the world of counterintelligence, as well as a close connection to the then-Deputy Director of the CIA, General Robert Cushman. Combined, it is easy to conjecture how effective a player Harry might have been in helping detangle the religious, cultural and political mechanisms causing widespread volatility in the Middle East and South Asia during the latter half of the twentieth century.

More similar to John le CarrĂ©’s fictional character, the eccentric George Smiley, than he was to Ian Fleming’s macho James Bond; Mirza Munir Baig would have, as he had in South Vietnam, particularly at Khe Sanh in 1968, continued to employ his matchless genius, cunning and self-discipline in the world’s most dangerous locales to protect his adopted country from harm until the day his luck ran out—which, as Fate would have it, was far too soon.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

New work of fiction by author Caleb S. Cage

In Desert Mementos, author Caleb Cage seamlessly draws together several poignant, evocative, and grimly humorous literary sketches into a truly remarkable interpretation of the foibles of the human heart—and the dark, endless moral predicament of soldiers who have faced mortal combat.  Candid and captivating.   Once I began reading, I could not put it down.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The Vietnam War documentary

A thought on the Burns/Novick documentary (which, like many others of my generation, I'm having a hard time getting through):

The CIA had long tried to convince the White House that the VC/NVA not only had far more troops committed in the field than LBJ, McNamara and Westmoreland wanted to believe, but also possessed the will and staying power to see it through. In his 1978 book, “Sub Rosa: The CIA and the Uses of Intelligence,” Peer DeSilva, a frustrated former CIA chief-of-station in South Vietnam, succinctly describes LBJ and his minions, in light of their doomed course of action, as having been "arrogant, prideful, and dumb."

On a somewhat related, one of the tragic absurdities I came across while researching “The Long Goodbye” was that McNamara had grown up in Oakland, CA, about a 15-minute walk from Tom Mahoney’s family home, and died on July 6, 2009 at the age of ninety-three—exactly forty-one years TO THE DAY that 20-year-old Tommy Mahoney fell on Hill 881 South. The fact that Mr. McNamara’s cynical and self-serving policy to keep his misgivings about the war hidden and continue escalating the effort earned him 73 years more of life than his neighbor Tommy—and thousands of other 20-year-old boys—is a disgraceful epilogue to this national tragedy.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

I will be interviewed about my life, my writing and thoughts on the Burns/Novick  PBS documentary, “The Vietnam War,” on  All Marine Radio  tomorrow morning September 21, 7:30-8:30 a.m. (It will also be available later for podcast).

Hope you can tune in.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Great news! The Long Goodbye: Khe Sanh Revisited has been selected as today’s Amazon Kindle Deal of the Day for North America in the Biographies & Memoirs category. When A Patch of Ground was picked a few years back, it sold 3,300 copies in a single day. Hoping this new book gets that same level of exposure.    

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Shadowy Origin of the 1968 Tet Offensive

The late summer of 1967 was relatively quiet around Khe Sanh and much of South Vietnam, although North Vietnamese Army regulars were continuing to be sent south in growing numbers. Both they, and we American troops stationed there, could not have known at the time that we were being used as pawns in a high-stakes political game that was playing out in the communist north, a game so secretive that no one, neither General Westmoreland nor President Johnson, had an idea of what was to come.

In Hanoi, the ascendant militant faction, led by Party First Secretary Le Duan, concerned that relentless American bombing of the north, coupled with hard fighting in the hills around Khe Sanh between U.S. Marines and crack NVA battalions from April through June, would soon drive a consensus of the Politburo to sue for a negotiated peace.

To prevent that, in July 1967 Le Duan ordered the arrest of hundreds of moderates, military officers and intelligentsia, pushing the venerable Ho Chi Minh and General Vo Nguyen Giap aside in what was later called the Revisionist Anti-Party Affair. While it was a common belief by those in the western world that Ho and Giap were still at the helm and the struggle for national unification was fought by unified leadership and patriotic volunteers from both the north and south, historian Lien-Hang T. Nguyen points out that "in reality, Le Duan constructed a national security state that devoted all of its resources to war and labeled any resistance to its policies as treason." 

With moderates now out of the way, Le Duan set in motion his plan for a broad conventional military offensive that would strike hundreds of targets in South Vietnam. He believed the south was ripe for change and would erupt in a popular uprising at the sight of communist forces in the streets of their cities, sweeping the Saigon regime and Americans out of the country.  While a launch date for the campaign against Khe Sanh had to be moved up to January 20 after NVA preparations there were accidentally discovered by the Marines, the broader nationwide offensive was to begin ten days later, on January 31, the first feast day of Tet, during a holiday ceasefire declared by the Americans and South Vietnamese.

Le Duan’s confidence in an extensive popular uprising proved to be a delusion (or based on extremely faulty intelligence information). The South Vietnamese Army remained loyal and relatively few civilians were drawn to the ranks of the Viet Cong—who would never fully recover after their losses during Tet.  Le Duan’s colossal miscalculation left his forces stranded and eventually decimated in cities like HuĂ© and Saigon, places they’d hoped to hold with the aid of the multitude rallying to their cause.   

How this effected the fate of the remote combat base at Khe Sanh will be the subject of a later post.

All the best,
Le Duan and Ho Chi Minh

Saturday, August 5, 2017


Welcome! I'm excited about launching this new blog and posting material on a regular basis that I hope you will find interesting and useful. 

Despite the passage of nearly half a century, the legacy of the 1968 fight for Khe Sanh, and other horrendous battles during the Tet Offensive, particularly in Hue and Saigon, have had an unrelenting influence on American life. This is not just seen in the damaging reverberations through generations within the families of loved ones who were lost or suffered in that war. Columnist George Will recently observed that the diminished confidence in government felt by many Americans today can be traced directly to those battles--and never again rising to pre-1968 levels of trust. 

Famed documentary filmmaker Ken Burns (The Civil War, Baseball, The West, etc.), in a speech to the Television Critics Association in Beverly Hills California this week,  said that much of his upcoming 18-hour, 10-part, documentary series The Vietnam War (which premieres on PBS at 8 pm PDT September 17), will show how eerily similar America's chaotic national predicament during the Vietnam War is to what we are experiencing today.

In response to a question about what the youth of America will find relevant in The Vietnam War, Burns said: "This is a story about mass demonstrations all across the country against the administration, about a White House obsessed with leaks and in disarray because of those leaks, about a president railing against you, the news media, for making up news."

"It's about asymmetrical warfare, which even the might of the United States Army can't figure out the correct strategy to take, and its about big document drops of classified material that has been hacked [The Pentagon Papers] that is suddenly dumped into the public sphere destabilizing the conventional wisdom about really important topics and accusations that a political campaign reached out to a foreign power [Candidate Nixon to the Republic of Vietnam] at the time of a national election to influence the election." 

Burns' remarks reminded me why I so value history and the lessons it can teach us and why I work so hard to drill down though decades of varnish, spin and downright myth to uncover what was actually happening in real time and the decision making process that led us deeper and deeper into that quagmire, in which the Vietnamese people suffered millions of casualties and more than 210,000 American men and women were wounded, died or went missing and many others, like myself, returned deep in the throes of what historian William Manchester once described as: "The supreme indifference of young men who have lost their youth and will never recover it." 

In my next post, I'll share with you some information about political maneuverings, like some ominous chess game, being played between leaders in Washington and Hanoi beginning fifty years ago this summer leading to those   horrifically costly battles a few months later. As these momentous events   transpired in the summer of 1967, my friend Tom Mahoney and I were working our way through Marine Corps boot camp, on schedule to meet that approaching havoc at the most inopportune time--in terms of our survival.

Until then, please visit for more information and thanks for dropping by.

I was saddened to learn that photojournalist David Douglas Duncan passed away yesterday, June 7, 2018, at the age of 102. He had lived lif...