Lost Soldiers (2001)
Once in a great while there comes a novel of such emotional impact and acute insight that it forever changes the way a reader sees a nation or an era. Writing with an unerring sense of suspense and of history experienced firsthand, James Webb takes us on a myth-shattering cultural odyssey deep into the heart of contemporary Vietnam, with a riveting thriller that tells a love story — love for those who perished, for family and friends, and between a soldier and the land where he had always been ready to die.
Brandon Condley survived five years of combat as a U.S. Marine only to lose the woman he loved to an enemy assassin. Now he is back in Vietnam, working to recover the remains of unknown American soldiers. On a routine mission, Condley finds a body that doesn’t match its dog tags — a body that propels him into a vortex of violence and intrigue where past and present become one.
Condley’s hunt cannot be kept secret from his former enemies, or his friends. And in the shadows that linger from Vietnam’s long season of darkness and terror, he has no way of knowing which side is more dangerous.
Surrounding him is an unforgettable cast of characters: Dzung, Condley’s closest friend, a South Vietnamese war hero who might have led his country if his side had won the war, now reduced to driving a cyclo as his family starves in Saigon’s District Four. Colonel Pham, a battle-hardened Viet Cong soldier who lost three children to American bombs. Manh, a cutthroat Interior Ministry official who blackmails Dzung into a mission of murder. The Russian soldier Anatolie Petrushinsky, who left his soul in Vietnam as his empire collapsed around him. And the beautiful Van, Colonel Pham’s daughter, who spurns the scars of war as she pursues her dreams of freedom.
As Condley stalks his elusive prey across old battlefields and throughout Eurasia, returning always to the brooding streets of Saigon, his mission — and the odds of his surviving it — grow more precarious with each step he takes toward the truth.
Lost Soldiers captures the Vietnam of past and present — its beauty and squalor, its politics and people. Propelled by a page-turning mystery, shot through with adventure and intrigue, it irrevocably transforms our view of that haunted land and brings us as complete an understanding as we will ever have of what happened after the war — and why.
No writer today is more qualified to take us into that world than James Webb.
War and Remembrance: A Vietnam Recalled With Sweetness, Sadness
LOST SOLDIERS A Novel; By James Webb; Bantam; $25, 384 pages
LA Times Book Review
By ANTHONY DAY, Special to The Times
September 7, 2001
“Lost Soldiers” is a strong and unusual novel. On its face, it is a standard tale of intrigue, adventure and mystery. James Webb has written a well-plotted story about Americans and Vietnamese in Vietnam more than a quarter-century after the war’s end. You want to know what will happen next: You will not be disappointed.
Yet, in retrospect, the plot fades away, and what the reader remembers most is the deep pull of affection the Americans feel for Vietnam and the Vietnamese. It’s not just that love that comes through; there is also powerful nostalgia for lost youth, friends dead, forever-missed possibilities of life.
… it is the atmosphere, the enveloping scene of Vietnamese people and places, at which Webb excels. His rendering of Americans in modern Asia is reminiscent of Joseph Conrad’s portraits of Westerners in the East a century ago, attracted, mystified, affected by–yet not wholly understanding–this strange world in which they moved.
Webb’s Condley had, years ago, tragically loved a Vietnamese woman and, more recently, another one. “But no woman could ever fully own his heart,” Webb writes. “Because he would always be in love with Vietnam. … it dangled its mysteries before him, puzzles that only deepened every time he tried to solve them. It embraced him so tightly that in a way he had become it, looking out at the rest of the world from inside its eyes….”
“Brandon Condley loved Saigon,” Webb writes. “It was the museum of his own heart”–a city of crumbling yellow French buildings, beggars, food cooked on the streets, crowded markets, swank automobiles, old Asia and new Asia tumbled together.
It is not, of course, just the picturesque sights of Asia that enchant Condley, but the people who inhabit them. Webb’s Vietnamese elders, men and women, are convincing. His portrait of a Vietnamese colonel who was on the other–victorious–side is quite plausible.
Webb’s most ambitious Vietnamese character is Dzung, once an airborne soldier for the Republic of Vietnam and the son of one of its generals. After re-education by the Communists, he is now merely the driver of a ciglo, a bicycle that carries a passenger for hire. Lovingly drawn, Dzung is Condley’s Vietnamese alter ego, perhaps his better half, because Dzung has a wife, children and the responsibility of providing for them, and Condley is alone. If the reader has any reservations about the wholly admirable Dzung, it may be because he stands very much in relation to Condley as, in the American sense, Little Brother to Big Brother.
But, in the end, that was the limitation to the American-Vietnamese relationship throughout the war, wasn’t it? America was Big Brother to South Vietnam’s Little Brother, and we knew that we knew best. The delicacy of Webb’s portrayal of Dzung conveys the suggestion, without ever saying so, that perhaps we didn’t. “Lost Soldiers” pays homage to the Vietnamese and to the Americans whose lives were entangled and, so often, lost in that long ago and far away war.
Publisher’s Weekly: “Webb’s cultural and political portrait of Vietnam … is delivered with bold strokes and magical detail… a rich cast of supporting characters … a highly textured mood and atmosphere…”
The Wall Street Journal: “Captivating … unforgettable.”
Booklist: “This gripping tale is a PAGE TURNER, but is also much more: a compelling, insightful, and beautiful portrait of a fascinating place, as well as a moving saga of revenge, love, loyalty honor, and, ultimately, redemption.”
Playboy Magazine: “Webb has a sniper’s eye and a lover’s heart and is at his best here…”
The Asian Reporter: “Webb has written a book with A GREAT – PERHAPS DEFINITIVE – DEPICTION OF THE VIETNAM THAT AMERICA LEFT BEHIND … a chilling look inside the Stalinist regime… powerful fiction, working on multiple levels … a pulse-pounder that is filled with wise experience and shrewd observation…”
The Houston Chronicle: “A stunning work … more than a first-class thriller … full of insights about both Vietnam today and the American military.”