Peter Van Greenaway
Take the War to Washington
My parents lived on a houseboat moored in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, in the Fifties. These days, librarian pay would not get you a rubber dinghy on that stretch of the river, even with both partners working, but those were different times.
I cannot remember if they bought their houseboat from Peter Van Greenaway (1929-88) or if it were the other way round. The only reason I know about their brush with the well-regarded novelist is that my father mentioned it when I bought the paperback of Take the War to Washington in the long, hot summer, when I was fifteen.
This review is one big spoiler, so be alert. That said, read the book (if you can find a copy) even if you continue to the end of this piece. Well worth it, despite knowing the conclusion.
A group of disgruntled but battle-hardened US Army veterans, during the wind-down phase of America’s involvement in Vietnam, hijacks an aircraft carrier, sails it across the Indian and Atlantic oceans and up the Hudson River. Anything within firing range in New York is devastated with missiles and napalm, the renegades blow up the Statue of Liberty and the Pan Am building (now the un-blown up MetLife Building) and fight their way down to Washington, where they storm the White House, seize the warmongering President Foxwell and his lieutenants, grab an aeroplane and crash themselves and the White House party into the Pentagon.
Unsurprisingly, the book was much discussed on-line and elsewhere in the wake of 11 September 2001 as a sort-of uncanny foretelling of the events of that day. Which is ironic, given that Take the War to Washington was pretty much a period piece even at the time of publication.
Van Greenaway’s bad luck was that events moved more swiftly than he could have envisaged. The hardback publication in 1974 coincided with the resignation of the real-life ‘Foxwell’, Richard Nixon, and his replacement by the more genial Gerald Ford.
Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese in the Spring of the following year, meaning that, by the time the paperback appeared in 1976, the war in Indo-China was very much in history’s rear-view mirror.
Today, Van Greenaway, who died in 1988, is probably best known for his 1973 novel The Medusa Touch, made into a rather silly film in 1978 starring Richard Burton as a man who has only to want cars to crash or airliners to plunge out of the sky for these things to happen. To the best of my knowledge, Take the War to Washington, was never filmed and, post-September 11, probably never will be.
Van Greenaway is one of that handful of British authors that can write ‘America’ well. Ian Fleming was another (think Live and Let Die in 1954). This reads like a novel about America by an American. He knows also his US military terminology and keeps the narrative flowing by declining to explain what the terms mean (in those pre-internet days, for example, you had to take some trouble to find out what was indicated by expressions such as DEROS – date of estimated return from overseas, i.e end of a tour in Vietnam).
So, the writing’s great, the plot is gripping… and the premise is absolutely crackers. Leading this suicide mission of ‘bringing Vietnam to the American people’ is Major John Halliday, revered by his men and possessed of a radical’s ire against the ruling class:
‘I’m wasting no words on this – the American people voted in those who made it possible, the American people are responsible for the blood on our hands.
‘I’m returning to the United States with my fellow-officers and we’re going to demonstrate to the American people what this war was really like.’
Van Greenaway has form in going for a chap in a uniform. In his 1968 novel The Man Who Held the Queen to Ransom and Sent Parliament Packing, his left-wing junior Army officer is British, Captain Richard Wyatt. Perhaps Van Greenaway was influenced by the prevailing mood of that time – culminating in the movie Cromwell (1970) – that benign left-wing military dictators are to be admired, despite Cromwell being, in reality, considerably less left-wing than Donald Trump.
If Halliday is a first-rate chap, President Foxwell is, quite simply, evil. This is a description of his addressing the nation on television: ‘There he was again, black-jowled, black, crispy hair, eyes black, sombre-visaged as Death with a healthy appetite.’
Foxwell has no redeeming features, but his adviser Dr Caressinger (get it?) is, at least, interesting:
‘Anyone concerned with the maintaining of law and order, from a housewife in Milwaukee to the Party Secretary in Moscow, will find nothing laughable in this situation. It could be a case of “us today – you tomorrow”.’
The aircraft carrier cannot be simply blown out of the water because hundreds of loyal American personnel are being held hostage. Less convincing (but clearly essential to the plot) is Foxwell’s insistence on remaining in the White House as Halliday’s confederates approach. Would, in reality, his bodyguards have allowed it? Remember George W. Bush being flown to a remote airfield on September 11?
Meanwhile, the official US forces – army and National Guard – supposedly defending New York and Washington are useless, and make elementary tactical errors that would shame a boarding-school cadet corps. Their only ‘successes’ seem to involve threatening and killing black Americans whom they come across.
At the root of the argument that this book is advancing is the notion that there was something uniquely evil, in the post-war world, in America’s involvement in Vietnam. True, it was a complicated saga, as anything involving Buddhists, Catholics and Communists is likely to be. But were the South Vietnamese under some sort of obligation to let themselves be invaded by their northern counterparts, and was it thus totally illegitimate for the US to come to their aid?
I don’t know and need to do a lot more reading on this subject. So, I suspect, do a lot of other people.
Yet there is some lovely writing in this book.
On the initial attacks: ‘Reeled! New York staggered under the shock.’
On the rationale: ‘“If you like, we’re the ultimate sickness, the virus returning to its host.”’
And at one point, a Vietnam veteran takes a bus journey to rural America and alights at the side of the freeway: ‘The blue sky gave promise of a fine day and the air was so Spring-soft you could damn near stroke it.’
Alas, we have also to be ticked off about the stream of cars flowing past:
You obeyed the controls, the road regulations, the cops, the road itself and your personal satisfaction quotient, the steering wheel replacing the mother’s breast.
Calm down Peter, old son. It’s only people driving.