I grew up hearing fantastical stories about the fall of Saigon from my dad, who witnessed the terrifying and chaotic final days of South Vietnam as a young foreign service officer. Panicked South Vietnamese parents, having heard horror stories about the brutality of the approaching North Vietnamese Army, tossed infants over the U.S. embassy gates in the hopes they’d be taken to safety. Rich politicians and their wives demanded that their gold-bar-filled luggage and prized dogs be allowed on board the tiny helicopters, even though space and weight were already at a premium. Helicopters were pushed off flight decks of Navy ships into the South China Sea so more could land. Stories like these seemed absurd and unbelievable to me, so when I was offered a copy of Bob Drury and Tom Clavin’s Last Men Out to review, I jumped on it, if only to get some independent verification of these tales. Who knows? Maybe my dad made it all up.
Except… turns out he didn’t. In roughly 270 pages, Last Men Out covers the finals days of April 1975 when, in the face of General Van Tien Dung’s push towards Saigon, the United States finally closed up shop after 25 years in Vietnam and rocked a helicopter-based evacuation called Operation: Frequent Wind. Last Men Out narrates the fantastical evacuation through the lens of the Marine Corps Security Guards (MSGs) posted to the embassy at Saigon and a few other provincial capitals, and it’s all there – thrown babies, gold and dogs, the disposal of perfectly good helicopters into the sea.
The authors do not, of course, mention Afghanistan, but the parallels are hard to miss.* The heroes and villains are clear: the MSGs are the very portrait of Real American Heroes, while the CIA, the State Department, and Washington come out covered in mud. Sound familiar? The narrative of America in Afghanistan is that the troops are doing their best with the policies and information available to them, while the politicos and policymakers that are to blame for the way things are going.
Interestingly, NVA’s General Dung, who (SPOILER ALERT) conquers Saigon in the end, is treated generously for refraining from attacking the city until Americans had left. The calculus behind his decision to wait for the Americans to evacuate gave me pause. While Dung certainly wanted to punish the U.S., he chose not to close on the city lest the Americans come back en masse to rescue or avenge their countrymen. I’m hardly suggesting we’ll see Kabul encircled by the Taliban on the day we finally close up shop – merely noting that the enemy has a say in how that day goes. Looking past the end of major combat operations in Afghanistan to the idea of a small advisory mission that will continue to help the Afghan National Security Forces, Last Men Out makes clear that as the number of U.S. troops declines, the risk to those still on the ground grows. The twin pressures of weak and fearful local allied forces and an enemy emboldened by fewer troops and the reduced likelihood of open hostilities could put any advisory mission in jeopardy.
In their treatment of the South Vietnamese, the authors display a frustrating tendency to stereotype – the politicians are corrupt, the civilians are childlike and helpless, the local security forces are sullen and liable to turn on their allies. Scattered moments of heroism and agency are all the more notable for their scarcity. The final moments of chaos in which the Vietnamese attempt to get to the roof to catch the last helicopter out make them seem like animals or barbarians – not frightened human beings who know what will happen when the NVA arrive. Again, this tracks with current popular understanding of the Afghans – politicians corrupt, civilians can’t help themselves, green-on-blue killings becoming endemic, etc. – with little attempt to understand the war from the Afghan perspective.
Honestly, it’s hard to read Last Men Out as straight history. It reads somewhat like a historical novel, like the war nerd’s version of The Other Boleyn Girl, and it’s a gripping story, especially if you’re not familiar with the intricacies and dramatis personae of Frequent Wind. You’re not sure who will live or die, whether the NVA will enter Saigon before the MSGs get out, or who gets left behind. If you can suspend disbelief a little bit it makes for a real page-turner (the level of detail suggests some liberties were taken with the dialogue and descriptions, but the authors address this in the endnotes, so I’ll forgive them that).
But it also makes for some sobering reading when read with half a mind to the next war we’ll leave unfinished. Though the parallels are not perfect, it’s especially worth considering how we treat – and leave – our local allies, both civilian and military, and how they’ll perceive themselves to have been treated. The image of 400 non-Americans patiently standing in the embassy courtyard waiting for a helicopter that never came is haunting, much like the stories about Iraqi interpreters left languishing in visa application purgatory. While we can’t save everybody, and we can’t and shouldn’t stay forever, we should take care not to offer false hope and to do what we can where we can.
* NB: I’m not arguing that Afghanistan is Vietnam 2.0, nor am I suggesting analogical thinking is particularly valuable in this instance. I’m merely noting the elements of this narrative that led me to consider their modern parallels.