"Because much of the focus of Walter Lang’s memoir “Tattoo” is on the author’s career in the U.S. Army, it may be fitting to approach it on more than one front: one being what Lang’s experience and adventures in arms tell us about the nature and evolution of U.S. military life during the period he served and also to some degree about the nature and evolution of American society during that period; another being what kind of man has lived this challenging and far from unimportant life; and finally the tale of how this man came to be the man who has lived the life he has. Let me begin, though, in a rather oblique manner but one that I hope it will seem to have point — by quoting the following passage from Rabbi Chaim Jachter:
“Throughout [their] history the Jews have received many appellations. Among the more famous[is found] in Exodus chapter 32 … one that evokes mixed feelings….
“The source of the appellation is Hashem himself, who says the following to Moses in the terrible aftermath of the Golden Calf: ‘I have seen [observed] this people, and behold they are a stiff-necked people. Now leave Me alone and My wrath will blaze against them and destroy them. I will then make you into a great nation.…”
“One chapter later, Hashem informs Moses that He will be now be sending a proxy, an angel, to watch over the Israelites instead of leading them directly. In explaining why, Hashem invokes this notion again: ‘I will send an angel before you, and I will drive out the Canaanites… [You will then] enter a land flowing with milk and honey… for I will not go up among you, for you are a stiff-necked people and I may destroy you along the way.’”
[And yet] in defending the people Israel, Moses uses the very same notion as the essential rationale for their salvation: “If I have found favor in Your eyes my Master, let my Master go among us, because (ki) it is a stiff-necked people. Pardon our iniquity and our sins, and take us as Your own possession.’” In this case, Moses employs the term “stiff-necked” as a reason to receive God’s mercy. How could Moses be using this term to win Hashem’s favor?
Ibn Ezra presents two possible solutions to the problem. First, he cites the opinion of Rabbi Mereinos who explains that the word ki in our context (“ki it is a stiff-necked people”) should be rendered as even though it is a stiff-necked people… Thus Moses is asking Hashem to find the Israelites deserving of mercy despite their stubbornness.
Opting for the standard usage of the word ki as a causative, Ibn Ezra explains that what Moses means is “because (I admit) that we have sinned, that we are a stiff-necked nation, therefore you should forgive.”
In a third interpretation Moses turns to God and says: “Hashem, Your people do not want an agent. We want the Divine Manager!” Why? The words of the Zohar Hadash explain: “For it is a stiff-necked people and You shall forgive” as meaning “The Jews are obstinate and wearying and when they sin, the angel can only do judgment and not forgiveness, but You are merciful and gracious. Therefore when we sin the angel must punish us. But You, Hashem, can fathom us in great depth and can find in our being stubborn the very building blocks of forgiveness.
A fourth approach is suggested by the Midrash:
There R. Yakim said: “Three are the undaunted: among beasts, it is the dog; among birds, it is the cock; and among the nations, it is Israel. You think that ‘stiff-necked people’ is said disparagingly, but it is really in their praise.”
“Tattoo” is rightly subtitled “a memoir of becoming,” and we will return to that theme. But let me suggest another possible subtitle, “The man who knew too much.”
One sees this, as well as a striking instance of Lang’s “stiff-necked” tendencies, in the Prologue, which takes place at a crucial juncture of the Iran-Iraq War — and to be sure we will find Lang at such crucial junctures more than once. In the presence of the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq but addressing the local CIA chief, who is also present, Lang says to him, with one assumes no little satisfaction, “I am here at the direction of the National Security Council and the Secretary of Defense to take charge of this mess.”
The rest of that enlightening encounter I leave to you to enjoy, but do take account of “take charge of this mess.” On the one hand, Lang is the man who knew too much — knows not only that this is a mess but also that the local CIA chief cannot acknowledge this fact, at least not in this setting. Further, as the rest of the encounter begins to make clear, Lang knows far more about this mess than the CIA chief thinks he does — he knows that the White House has betrayed the Iraqis, that Washington fears that Iran has the upper hand in the war but instead and in fact (as Lang accurately sees it) the military crisis in the war has passed and Iran will not prevail. But also one detects the underlying satisfaction Lang feels at being able to deliver a justified stinging reprimand to an arrogant man in the wrong who had felt certain that he could push Lang around.
One of many such indelible snapshots in “Tattoo,” this theme can be traced back to the more or less mysterious relationship between Lang’s father, also Walter, and his son. A career Army man who had behaved with decisiveness and courage in at least one encounter with Philippine rebels in the ‘20s where his life easily could have been forfeit, the senior Lang ended up in an unhappy marriage and could be described as a disappointed, sullen and perhaps above all cloaked man — a father whose usually unspoken demands, their nature perhaps not fully known to the man himself, were not to be readily read or understood by his son, who otherwise was, by the son’s quite believable account, an exemplary offspring.
Fortunately, Lang found a near ideal substitute father in his father’s brother John, the dedicatee of “Tattoo,” a lifelong Navy man whose notable adventures, again, I leave to you to enjoy. One of them, by the way, suggests that Lang’s “stiff-necked” side may have been a family trait. While serving aboard the battleship
Massachusetts during the invasion of North Africa, John Lang notices the ship’s arrogant executive officer flinching under bombardment. Lang finds a metal bolt and drops it from above on the executive officer’s helmet, which briefly leads the man to think that he has been mortally wounded. Revenge for this escapade is duly taken; John Lang loses his post aboard the ship. But he goes on to distinguish himself as he had before the war, in China when he performed heroically during the Japanese attack on the U.S. gunboat Panay.
One last look at the relationship between Lang the father and Lang the son. Living in Maine, the teenaged son and a relative find themselves at the family’s cabin inn the woods as a forest fire approaches. Hoping that they have a secure power and thus water supply, they climb onto the cabin’s’s roof and wet it down for hours as the forest fire rages on until it has burned up all available fuel. Then Lang senior drives up in a jeep and tells the exhausted saviors of his cabin they should have let it burn down for the insurance money.
A final indelible note: Before the outbreak of World War II, John Lang and Lang Senior’s other brother, Gordon, also a Navy man, are visiting their brother at his post at Fort Devens, Mass., where he is a warrant officer in the Finance Corps. They speak of the war they all know is coming soon, and this scene takes place:
“Walt said, ‘’I should tell you that ‘the powers’ have decided to make me a captain in September. It is a wartime appointment, but I will take it…. It will be a long war. Let us make good use of the months that we have.
“You should go overseas when war begins,” his wife [Marie] commented. “I may not know much about the Army yet, but I know that the chance for improvement will be larger for those overseas.”
“The two navy men waited for his reply.
“ Walter looked at his plate and said nothing.
His old friends forced him to take the captain’s rank,” Marie exclaimed. “Now they want to make him the Finance Officer of the 1st Division. The division is here now, and they will be with the first to go to the war… Tell him! I have nagged him and picked on him for weeks over this….”
“After a few seconds May Belle [John’s wife] said, “Go on, Walt, she’s tellin’ you the truth, you know that. You can see it in her face. You’re not goin’ to listen to her?”
“Walter raised his head. His face was a dark, brick red. For a moment, it seemed certain that he would lash out at his sister-in-law. Then he focused on John’s face and subsided. “I will not go overseas. I am finished with all that….”
“The navy men left the next day. Outside the gate of the fort they stopped their cars to talk.
“We know this thing,” John began. “We have seen it many times…”
Gordon nodded and looked away.
“Well, tell little me,” May Belle demanded. “I never saw nothin’ like that before. You said he was a brave man,” she told her husband
“Every man has only so much courage,” Gordon said to her. “He has come to the end of his.”
Any novelist would be proud to have given such a scene, and in fact Lang is the author of a brilliant trilogy of novels about the Civil War. But I see that I’m in danger of turning this account of “Tattoo” into a shadow version of the entire book, which will not do, so let me conclude by pointing to what seems to me to be its key episode of the memoir — indeed in its aftermath Lang writes that “the central point of his life had passed.”
In South Vietnam, a Special Forces major, late in 1968 Lang has been placed in charge of The 3rd Battalion, 525th Military Intelligence Group, “engaged in providing counterintelligence and espionage support to US armed forces units operating in the 3rd Corps Tactical Zone of the South Vietnamese Army….
The towns in Lang’s area were all besieged and under more or less continual attacks by fire with mortars, rockets and the occasional artillery strike from somewhere out in the jungle. There were also ground probes that from time to time became really serious.
Mobile U.S. forces came and went, but a permanent network of civil and military advisory teams, corps level artillery firebases, and Special Forces camps provided an ongoing presence.
Lang flew to Song Be, the capital of Phuoc Long Province in a C-45 twin engine Beechcraft transport. Song Be was 20 miles from the Cambodian border. The job of Lang’s detachment was to insinuate itself into the available “cover” provided by the activities of CORDS and to find indigenous or European persons brave enough to repeatedly penetrate enemy units and bases outside the towns to obtain good information….
“The Sergeant Major of 3/525 MIG announced his opinion of Lang’s operating area when they first met. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘At least you won’t have far to walk to Cambodia when you’re captured.’
The towns in Lang’s area were all besieged and under more or less continual attacks by fire with mortars, rockets and the occasional artillery strike from somewhere out in the jungle. There were also ground probes that from time to time became really serious.’…
Lang flew to Song Be, the capital of Phuoc Long Province in a C-45 twin engine Beechcraft transport. Song Be was 20 miles from the Cambodianborder… The Sergeant Major of 3/525 MIG announced his opinion of Lang’s operating area when they first met. “Well,” he said, “At least you won’t have far to walk to Cambodia when you’re captured.”
The possibility of sudden death from shelling and other enemy fires was always present in Song Be. A few weeks after Lang arrived, he had been working in a building at the south end of town when a Rocket Propelled Grenade fired from outside the perimeter ripped through the front wall of the structure. The shaped charge warhead passed between Lang and another man. It looked like a white-hot energy core. This was followed by the tail fin assembly. The fins on the tail made a “whup, whup” sound as the piece of flying “junk” crossed the room to bury itself like a hatchet in a wall. Things like that happened frequently in Song Be.
Eventually, Song Be comes under such concerted fierce assault from Viet Cong and NVA forces, which vastly outnumber the men Lang has placed in “fortified hard points,” that the thought of The Alamo begins to loom in the reader’s mind.
The tale of how this commander and most of his men survive these fierce assaults is not however tragic but confirmation of a maxim that Lang learned from Napoleon: “The most important factor in any kind of warfare is human relations” — relations of immense care, trust, and courage. And ultimately — as so often in “Tattoo” — also of a kind of institutional betrayal on the part of the sort of self-serving higher ups who, brought face to face with the fact that their bacon has been saved by brave men and their savvy independent-minded commanding officers try their damnedest to deny them credit and even refuse to acknowledge that their efforts have taken place.
These are perhaps the most disturbing aspects of “Tattoo.” And as similar incidents of self-serving obtuseness or worse from on high begin to mount up, even as in the incident related in book’s prologue, at high levels of policy, until one wonders how men of Lang’s vintage and type, men who refused to bend their rather stiff necks, managed to retain their sanity.
“Have you ever known any VMI people,” a fellow officer, referring to the Virginia Military Institute, where Lang received much of his academic and military education, asks a colleague who finds Lang to be something of a daunting puzzle. “This one is typical. Duty bound but unwilling to take any horseshit from anyone….”
In the aftermath of Song Be, “Lang always remembered one VC soldier who hung on the wire with a strand supporting his chin. His open, dead, black eyes examined the Americans, asking a question that for Lang would never be answered.
“The question was - why? Why had this happened? Why were Americans condemned to fight these brave men so far from home? These were men who shouted “Independence!” as they attacked. What ‘threatened’ American interest was worth this? It was true that the Vietnamese Communists had succeeded in taking over the Viet Minh and Viet Cong movements, but Lang ever after felt that the NVA and VC were better people than the policy wonks and ideologues on both sides who caused young men to fight each other in the jungles, mountains and swamps of Viet Nam….”
“Many years later Lang dined in New York City with a retired general who had served in Song Be as an adviser the year after Lang was there.
“It was real quiet, Pat,” he said. “Real quiet, and we knew why. You gents killed them all, damned near every VC in the province. It took years for them to re-build.”
“Yes, we killed them all…”
The degree to which this nation has depended — militarily, morally, socially — on the existence of such men as Walter Lang — men who do their duty but never stop thinking and feeling —is a point that “Tattoo” makes eloquently and in an indelible manner." Larry Kart
"Before going into my impression of the value of Colonel Pat Lang’s memoir, I would first like to observe that it is beautifully written and reflective of Pat’s multilingual abilities as well as his multicultural insights. It is above all a soldier’s story, but more than that a tale that benefits from old-fashioned values and sensitivities in a man whose story was comprised of experiences that would fill several normal lifetimes.
I believe that it is a book that could not have been written by anyone but Pat given his education, spirituality and life experiences. It is also educational in a historical context in that it harkens back to a world and an America that do not any longer exist, when American values and abstractions like patriotism, honor and duty were regarded in a substantially different fashion than they are today. I particularly appreciated the early chapters that recreated the careers in the army and navy of Pat’s father and uncles in China and the Philippines, something like journeying back in a time capsule, while also learning something new about forgotten wars in far-away lands.
My own experience does not exactly come close to matching Pat’s, but we have a number of intersections. We both did our army basic intelligence training at Fort Holabird in Baltimore in the 1960s and we both intersected subsequently in a number of countries, I as CIA, and Pat with the US Army. I have never experienced combat or been in real danger apart from having been the target of a knife attack in Turkey and a shooting in Spain. Pat’s experience goes well beyond having just been a “combat veteran” and one of the great take-aways from the memoir is his detailed description of his time in Vietnam, which certainly is more illuminating on many levels than anything else I have read relating to that war.
I believe Pat’s memoir can be educational on two levels. First, it is a must-read for military officers who are intending careers in special ops, intelligence and even more generally in combat arms. That is because what one learns in a classroom or in training exercises is designed to reach a majority of the students and, for that reason, has to concentrate on material that is easily digestible. Military or government training rarely challenges the better prepared individual student. Pat’s memoir fills in the cracks, so to speak, providing real life commentary that both demonstrates how things develop and then work in practice while also revealing the personal conflicts that play out for an individual involved in extreme high stress situations.
While the principal beneficiaries of the memoir will be military officers in training or already in active service, there is also a secondary potential audience of ordinary citizens desiring to understand who we are and how we have gotten where we are today. The memoir is written along a time-line that ties a number of episodes in Pat’s life together, but virtually every “experience” is worth reading and considering on its own as a separate story with lessons learned. As noted above, even as the Vietnam War has spawned thousands of books and is fading from memory, Pat’s perspective is both boots-on-the ground level and revealing regarding how the war was managed, so there is much to learn from the memoir. Does today’s US military fail to inspire with its business management corps of senior officers? Pat recounts how there were also many of them around in Vietnam and elsewhere during his career, including several who should be
damnatio memoriae. Indeed, there are still many such people in both the armed forces and government more generally speaking, to our shame. Finis." Phil Geraldi Ph. D.