Year of Monkey
The Year of the Monkey

William W. Lewis.

Reviewed by Amitrajeet A. Batabyal

 
The Tet offensive was a military campaign conducted almost entirely in the first half of 1968 by the combined forces of the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (the NLF or Viet Cong) and the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN or the North Vietnamese Army). The primary objective of this campaign was to strike civilian and military command and control centers throughout South Vietnam and to spark a general uprising among the people that would eventually topple the government in Saigon and thereby end the Vietnam war in a single blow. The campaign got its name from the fact that it commenced in the early morning hours of January 31, the start of Tet Nguyen Dan or the lunar new year. The NLF-PAVN led offensive was both well coordinated and countrywide in scope. Although the initial NLF-PAVN attacks surprised the allied forces, these initial attacks were quickly and successfully repulsed. As a result, the Tet offensive eventually resulted in a major military defeat for the communist forces. Even so, the fighting associated with this military campaign was ferocious---particularly in the old city of Hue---and the Tet Offensive resulted in a psychological victory for the communists because it shocked both the American administration and the American public who had, up until then, believed that the communist forces were incapable of launching such a massive military offensive.

The Phoenix program was an intelligence gathering and internal security operation designed and run by the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in cooperation with the South Vietnamese security apparatus. The Tet offensive of 1968 demonstrated the salience of the Viet Cong infrastructure and, as such, beginning in 1968, the Phoenix program kicked into high gear. The principal purpose of this program was to identify and neutralize---using whatever means necessary---the civilian infrastructure supporting the NLF or Viet Cong insurgency.

In The Year of the Monkey, author William Lewis uses the backdrop of the Tet offensive and the Phoenix program to tell the story of the interconnected lives of four individuals. These four individuals are Marine Sergeant Michael Warner, CIA regional supervisor Frank Monin, Associated Press journalist Wally Brumsfield, and a barber at the American base in Phu Bai Tran Van Ky. Michael Warner barely survived his first tour of duty in Vietnam and hence it would seem that he would have all the reasons in the world for not coming back to Vietnam. Yet, he does return to Vietnam for a second tour. Frank Monin has been in Vietnam for over five years and, in the aftermath of the Tet offensive, it is his turn to implement portions of the Phoenix program, a program he hopes dearly will succeed. Wally Brumsfield is a former Marine and an experienced journalist who appears to have a penchant for latching on to big stories. Finally, Tran Van Ky is nominally a barber but in actuality a very effective double agent who is planning a Tet surprise for the Americans but who also desperately needs the Americans to get his family and hopefully himself out of Vietnam. 

The author skillfully weaves the individual experiences of the above mentioned four individuals into a seamless narrative about the Vietnam war. This narrative is fast paced and it also rightly forces the reader to contemplate the purpose, the conduct, and the eventual outcome of wars. The language used in this book by the author is coarse but the author does a good job of chronicling what war means not only to the above mentioned four individuals but also to American soldiers who are quite frequently mere teenagers. The author shows with considerable acumen how young American recruits who are like fresh snow upon their arrival in Vietnam soon turn into savage killers capable of acts of intense brutality. At the same time, he presents the NLF-PAVN perspective on matters and he does an admirable job of delineating the trials and tribulations confronting the double agent Tran Van Ky whose love for his country is trumped only by his love for his own family.

Let me conclude this review with the following four observations. First, the language used by the author in this book is certainly not for the faint hearted. Even so, this language is not out of place and, on more than one occasion, it helps the reader get an accurate perspective on the thinking of the principal cast of characters. Second, this book would have profited from the inclusion of a map highlighting the locations of the places that are routinely mentioned by the author in the course of his story-telling. Third, a more elaborate discussion of the motives for Tran Van Ky becoming a double agent would have been helpful. Finally, the above caveats notwithstanding, I would be remiss in my duties if I did not clearly state that this book provides a compelling and insightful account of events that occurred four decades ago but which---given recent happenings in Iraq and Iran---have considerable relevance in contemporary times as well.
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