I have a confession to make: I know far too little about the Vietnam War. My dad served in the Air Force in Libya in the mid 60s, so I don’t have any firsthand accounts of what life was like during the war, and I’m aware of enough to know that most of the films and TV specials I’ve seen were produced from a certain point of view. So, when I received the opportunity to review the new novel The Forest of Assassins by my PJM colleague David Forsmark and Dr. Timothy Imholt, I jumped at the chance to learn something new while enjoying a different kind of literary experience.
The year is 1964. The war in Vietnam is in its infancy, and the top secret Navy SEAL program is new enough that hardly anyone serving there has heard of it. Lieutenant Hank Dillon commands a unit of the elite SEALs in a dangerous area known as the “Forest of Assassins.” Dillon and his men trust each other with their lives, and Dillon believes he knows who else he can trust. We follow Dillon and his team from mission to mission, each one with increasing complexity and precision and greater danger. Dillon leads his men admirably and heroically, but inwardly he expresses his fear for their safety and his worry about the future of the Vietnamese people for whom they are fighting.
I know it sounds like a cliche, but as I read The Forest of Assassins, I felt like I was right there in the jungles of Southeast Asia with Dillon and his men. The violence and bloodshed are vivid and memorable, yet rarely gruesome. The authors’ attention to detail adds so much to the story, and their depiction of life in country kept the plot from feeling like battle after battle after battle.
The novel’s depiction of the various people surrounding the SEALs and other Americans fighting in Vietnam give it a heightened sense of realism. Corrupt Vietnamese generals, prostitutes, dubious local villagers, helpful indigenous tribes, civilians with varying levels of cluelessness, and even a Buddhist monk lighting himself on fire in protest cross the paths of our heroes and weave a colorful tapestry of the people in Southeast Asia at that time. The nascent SEAL program becomes a character in and of itself, as most of the people who surround Dillon and his team don’t know what the program is or what to make of it.
Forsmark and Imholt also include several subplots that make the Vietnam War come to life even more. Dillon and his men endure an investigation into drug smuggling and dealing among American military men, and the overly earnest investigator finds love again after his wife’s death. One of Dillon’s men reacts to his wife’s drug overdose in the worst possible way, while Dillon confronts his own worst fears about himself while on an R&R trip with his loving, supportive wife. One particularly heartwarming and redemptive subplot involves Dillon and his men assisting a nun who runs an orphanage nearby.
The Forest of Assassins opened my eyes to the reality of the early days of the Vietnam War. I gained some much needed knowledge about Vietnam and the Navy SEALs, and I enjoyed every minute of it. Both entertaining and enlightening, it’s practically a steal at $2.99 for Kindle! Do yourself a favor, and read this book.