Nov 17, 2009
The Tiger Man of Vietnam
Reviewed by Pamela Wilson
When you’ve got a story full of intrigue, deception, torture and murder, you’ve got the makings of a good thriller. When that story is true, you have the makings of a great one. Because of this, I snapped up the chance to read and review The Tiger Man of Vietnam, by Frank Walker. Given the choice, I will always pluck from the shelf a biographical account that promises a good story as well as enlightenment of a foreign place, era, or event; and, on all accounts, I wasn’t disappointed with Walker’s book.
The Tiger Man of Vietnam recounts the two years that Australian war hero Barry Petersen spent heading a covert CIA mission to train up a paramilitary force deep in the Vietnam jungle. In this short space of time, Petersen honed his skills in guerrilla warfare, mastered the cultural requirement of skolling home-made rice wine – even when grit and wriggly weevils were present – and was instrumental in quelling a rebellion that would have resulted in bloodshed. He made friends and enemies everywhere he went. But few in the Australian government even knew he was there; before long, few in the CIA wanted him to remain.
Sympathetic to the Montagnard – the tribespeople being squeezed by both the Viet Cong and the South Vietnamese forces – that he was training, Petersen got too close to them and their cause. Revered and honoured, he became a demi-God. So, when the CIA asked him to turn his troops, The Tiger Men, into assassination squads, he refused. Shortly after, he found himself to a target on the CIA’s own assassination list.
When I target the bookstores, I always aim to get the best bang for my buck, to get value for money. I expect something worthy from the words I read, whether it is entertainment, insight or knowledge. I got all three with The Tiger Man of Vietnam. I learned that the Vietnam War, as it was run by the Americans and allies, was even more abhorrent and unforgivable than I previously realised. I was horrified to learn the true extent of the CIA’s dirty tactics and, worse still, that they continue today. I was surprised to discover that for many years a ‘torture school’ existed at the School of Military Intelligence at Middle Head in Sydney. Even better, I got all this from well-formulated prose and description, and not in the format of extended teachers’ notes that some historical books bog us down with.
However, as gripping and fascinating as Barry Petersen’s story is, I tired of this man who seemed too good to be true: a champion of the wretched, a soldier with a conscience, a man enough brave to stand up to authority. To Walker’s credit, he launches into a series of interviews with men that Petersen worked with, about two-thirds of the way into the book. Here, we begin to see Petersen in a new light, as a man who gets ‘carried away with himself’ and ‘a megalomaniac who fancied himself as another Lawrence of Arabia’, but it came a little too late for me. I would have liked to have seen this side of Petersen’s character sooner so I could get to know him properly – warts and all – from the start.
Despite this, Walker has done a thorough job in fleshing out this important story. As you would expect from a journalist with 32 years experience in newspapers, this book is meticulously researched and the interviews are informative and insightful. Walker’s knowledge of military and defence is evident from the years he spent covering these topics, along with security and politics, for the Sun-Herald newspaper.
I would highly recommend this book. In fact, I already have, to a number of colleagues, friends and family. This is a story for anyone who enjoys the feeling that they are not only being entertained, but that they are learning something when they sit down for a quiet night in with a good book.
Pamela Wilson is the freelance writer, journalist and editor who talks a little too much and laughs a little too loud. She also facilitates author ‘in conversation’ events, teaches a freelance feature writing course at the Sydney Writers Centre and writes a blog for aspiring writers. (www.writesmart.com.au)