SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 213 November 2017

Socialism and the novel

Interview with Edward Wilson

Edward Wilson has published numerous novels. His first, A River in May (2002) is set in Vietnam where he served in a Special Forces unit of the US army, and is a brutal depiction of the horrors of that war. Other works include The Midnight Swimmer and The Darkling Spy. A Very British Ending deals with the plot to overthrow Harold Wilson’s Labour government in the 1970s. Edward Wilson, who has been described as a ‘socialist John Le Carré’, spoke to TONY SAUNOIS for Socialism Today and will also speak at Socialism 2017 on 11-12 November.

How did you end up in the US army in the Vietnam war and what was your attitude to it at the beginning?

Well, I come from a military family. Both my brothers were US naval officers. Like them I won a military scholarship to university. This was repaid with some years in active service. I had, in a sense, a split personality – I was in some respects two people. We had some posh friends although we were from a poor family. They had some interesting guests. I remember exactly when I decided my views on the Vietnam war. It was in August 1965. I was at a dinner with some interesting people. I heard Miles O’Donovan, son of the Irish writer Michael O’Donovan who adopted the pen-name Frank O’Connor, argue against Leonard Tennyson who became director of the European Union office in Washington. Also present was James Schlesinger [US defence secretary 1973-75], who I recall sat quietly bemused in the background.

But I went to war to ‘prove myself as a man’. And, although it was not good, I wanted to be a writer. How could a writer sit out a war? The night Robert Kennedy was shot I sat up all night. If he lived I probably would not be in a war. If he died I was off to Vietnam. He died at 5am and my future was set. So, if you are going to a show get a front seat. I signed up for the infantry and the Special Forces.

When did you begin to embrace socialist ideas and what effect did Vietnam have on this?

I was really beginning with socialist ideas before I went to Vietnam. However, it had a big effect on me. Much of this is in A River in May. I was for a period of five months a staff officer which allowed me to visit eight of the nine camps. I got to meet high-ranking officers and civilian officials and witnessed the cynicism and weariness surrounding the war at a high level. War is a combination of boredom and horror. The boredom can be hideous. I don’t think I can ever listen to Johnny Cash again. In Nong Son we were cramped in an underground bunker listening to poor whites continuously playing Johnny Cash.

Well, in the hours of boredom you long for action. When it comes you want the boredom back. After a while I could no longer cope with the mindless brutality surrounding me, personified by a commanding officer who ordered rice fields sprayed with waste oil to deny their use to the enemy, but which further impoverished the population of the targeted village. I hated that guy. He tried and failed to get me relieved of my duty.

I had a mad scheme. In our camp there were 300 Vietnamese. Of these there were probably 20-30 sleeper agents for the Viet Cong. One was an interpreter, Hieu. I thought: what a way to break into writing, a book by a Green Beret who defected to the Viet Cong. We sat on a sandbagged revetment surrounding the mortar pit. The 81mm mortars were in a pit to protect them against shelling. I dropped hints about how it was terrible what the US was doing to his country. He must have pissed himself laughing. Anyway, the next day he had deserted and disappeared.

Two weeks later I was asked if I wanted to make a trip to Hong Kong for a week by an officer. Why not? You could not use US dollars in Vietnam at that time. You had to use US military post script. These changed every few weeks to try to stop drug dealing and pimps operating. Anyway, I was given a briefcase. In it was 20,000 dollars! A lot of money then. Where it came from I don’t know. Probably the south Vietnamese forces which were totally corrupt. I was told to go and exchange the dollars in Hong Kong for Rolex gold watches. The CIA was drug running then, using the bodies of dead US troops to ship the drugs.

Did it radicalise you?

Yes it did. I developed a strong admiration for the people we were fighting. One incident will haunt me until the day I die. It’s in A River in May. We had a policy of ‘Vietnamization’. The US forces were just there as support. A team of the Vietnamese were sent out and entered a Viet Cong village after fighting. They capture a woman and a child for interrogation. The woman was blindfolded and her hand was in a terrible state. Just hanging on by the tendons. She had been shot by an M-16. The bullets are terrible. The Kalashnikov fires a clean bullet, it goes straight through. The M16 tumbles on impact causing more brutal wounds. I witnessed this woman being interrogated. "What does your husband do?" the Vietnamese officer asked. "Nothing", she replied. "He must do something: a peasant, a guerrilla. What does your husband do?" he screeched at her. She replied: "Nothing. You just killed him", in the most dignified and confident way. I just thought: if she is a socialist I want to be one.

There were also two events which had a big impact on radicalising my outlook. Firstly, the My Lai massacre of up to 500 civilians by US soldiers on 16 March 1968. This only became known publicly in 1969. Then the killings at Kent State University in Ohio on 4 May 1970. The National Guard opened fire on protesting students, killing four, the irony being that the National Guard reservists who killed those students were serving in the guard to avoid service in Vietnam.

Vietnam radicalised you further. In your books, your characters Henry Bone and William Catesby are really dissidents in the secret services. We have seen Edward Snowden. Do you think this is an important issue today?

This is an important point. Very important. The security and intelligence services have a very big problem with this in my opinion. David Shayler defected from the MI5. Chelsea Manning is a real hero. I think they have to have counsellors working to prevent this developing in the intelligence services.

In A Very British Ending you centre on the plot to undermine and overthrow the Harold Wilson government by the military and secret services. Do you think a government led by Jeremy Corbyn would face the same threat?

Absolutely. Wilson was not a genuine lefty. He was an opportunist although it might not be a popular thing to say. He was a member of the Liberal Club at university. I think Wilson would have liked to lead the right wing in Labour but Gaitskell beat him to it. Wilson was not a raving Marxist. Yet Gaitskill was their poodle, a prototype Blair. He was to the right of Harold MacMillan. They wanted to stop Wilson, Gaitskell was more reliable.

You also set a scene of Gaitskell at his home which clearly shows where his loyalty lay. The rich and secret services are all present. Is this a problem today with the Blairites in the Labour Party?

Definitely, this issue needs to be addressed. They would move to sabotage Corbyn. On the issue of a threat to him and what happened to Wilson, I will tell you an incident but cannot reveal the names of those involved. I was at an event sitting next to Lady X, the wife of a general. Not just any general, a senior general. They were very pleasant. She asked me what my next book was about. I said the military plot to overthrow Harold Wilson. She introduced me to her husband, the Generalisimo. They said: how interesting, we knew three of the people involved. Such a plot was real.

I am not sure the army would react the same way to Corbyn today. I may be wrong. They and the police have been affected by savage cuts. They are more likely to use the banks and the press. Why use tanks when you have banks? Greece is possibly a more likely type of threat, and what they did there.

In two of your books you mention Leon Trotsky - in A Very British Ending quite extensively. What is your view of Trotsky?

Let me put it this way. In a clash between ‘tankies’ [hard-line Stalinists] and Trotskyists I would be on the side of Trotsky. My leaning towards Trotsky is because I believe that socialism has to be international. Here I may have a difference with your party on the question of the EU which we can discuss.

Do you think that there is a definite role for novels to act as a mirror to reflect the real life of people and politics?

There should be many more writers who are political. I cannot understand why there are few political novelists. There are many more political writers in theatre. What better who done it than how the ruling class came to power? There is a real plot to develop on that. In the past there were many more clearly political writers. I like Jack London. Hemingway I despise. Dickens’ most politically left-wing work was Hard Times which is very relevant today. Evelyn Waugh was one of the best for the left. Although he was a high Tory and right wing, he wrote very well to expose the decadence of the ruling class.

You write from a socialist standpoint. Have you encountered problems getting your novels published because of this?

No. I’m an established author and my books have made a lot of money. You know capitalism will sell you the rope you will use to hang them! That is how I see my books.

And your next book?

Ah, this will deal with the Falklands conflict. It’s called South Atlantic Requiem.

Edward Wilson will speak alongside author Meena Kandasamy and others at the Socialism 2017 forum: Can art and literature provide a voice for the left? Sunday 12 November, 10am in central London. See for more information.

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