Michael Archer was a Marine radio operator at Khe Sanh, the murderous 1967-68 battle that gave U.S. policymakers nightmares about Dien Bien Phu, the battle that lost the Indochina war for the French. Archer has written about that experience in A Patch of Ground, published by Hellgate Press. He expected it to be “a geezer read,” but it’s attracted interest on college campuses. Archer is about to set off on a book tour at universities in Kentucky and Delaware.
Given what that battle was like, I would think you’d be anxious to forget it.
I don’t know if it goes back to my youth, but I always liked to read a lot, and I always fancied myself as being an author one day. When I was experiencing it, from the day I landed at Khe Sanh before the battle began, I always thought I would want to write about it. So I was collecting ideas and observing characters and things like that. When I got out of the Marine Corps, after a couple of years, I took these things—these logs and notes and things—and I said, I’m going to do it now. And I tried, and I’d get two pages, and it was just very difficult. It brought up so many bad feelings at once, I couldn’t even identify which ones I was feeling. I tried unsuccessfully a few times and put it away. As time went on, and there was more space between those events in my life, I was able to try it again a few years ago, which—it was a lapse of about 30 years—and it worked. … I think I did it to try to understand what happened and why I felt that way all those years.
Which Vietnam books do you like?
I very much like Michael Herr’s Khe Sanh chapter in Dispatches. I’d read his Esquire series. You know, I have to be honest with you, I haven’t read many books about Vietnam, and most of the books I read were in conjunction with the research I was doing to try to figure out what was going on around me. Because [as a] PFC in a hole, you don’t really know what’s going on too far away. … I’ve read a book recently, but it was by a friend of mine, so I don’t know if that’s fair, but … it was called The Lotus Unleashed. It’s by Robert Topmiller. The only reason I liked it is because it dealt with the period of time right before U.S. involvement in Vietnam. It kind of filled in the gap between Graham Greene and my own experiences.
Did you read Graham Greene?
Oh, yes—The Quiet American? I haven’t seen the movie, but I’ve read the book about three times. It’s one of those like All Quiet on the Western Front by Remarque that I just go back to every five or six years, and I just don’t get tired of them. They’re just timeless.
I see The Lotus Unleashed is about the Buddhist anti-war movement in Vietnam. Did you cross paths with it?
No. The guy that wrote that was our corpsman at Khe Sanh, and he was a very courageous man. He’s a peace advocate now. We hooked up after 37 years. We’d lost contact. … I guess basically what the book was about to me was, you know, the United States had a foreign policy [in Vietnam] that if you weren’t for us, you’re against us. And they [U.S. officials] couldn’t understand the nationalist and religious aspects of that society, and that’s what consequently got us into the problems that we were in.