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Dangerous and Unpredictable Duties During the Vietnam War

Book Corner: Policing Saigon, written by Loren Christensen.

War stories have always fascinated the public, ranging from Erich Maria Remarque’s

World War One novel All Quiet on the Western Front, to Alistair MacLean’s World War Two thriller The Guns of Navarone, up to the more recent American Sniper,

Chris Kyle’s autobiography of his combat experience in Iraq. Ex-cop and noted martial artist Loren Christensen throws his hat into the ring with Policing Saigon, the story of his

year as a military policeman patrolling the capital city of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Told mostly as a series of vignettes, Policing Saigon is at times dark-humored, shocking, sad, grisly, and even touching. (A note about terminology – in 1975 Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City, and in 1976 South Vietnam merged with North Vietnam to become simply Vietnam.)

A cop in Portland, Oregon for 25 years, and a karate practitioner since his teens, Christensen is known mostly for a series of well-regarded policing and martial arts books. In Policing Saigon, he tells his story slowly and methodically. Growing up in suburban Washington state, his goal in college in the late 60’s was to break into radio and theater. Christensen took the initiative of enlisting, viewing the military police as an experience to draw upon for the acting world and incorrectly thinking that MP volunteers don’t receive overseas assignments (he notes that he was lied to by the recruiter).

After basic training, Christensen went through the range of military police courses such as language school and dog training. But after landing in Saigon in 1969, the 23-year old quickly realized that he was unprepared for the tough and thankless job. The MPs worked 12-hour shifts, seven days a week that often went hours into overtime in a sprawling, stifling hot and dirty city, hit hard by the war. The roads were clogged with haphazard and unregulated traffic that resulted in frequent accidents, some of which Christensen witnessed and some in which he was involved. The city was known for wretched poverty and was full of beggars, often children forced by their parents. The pollution was so severe – and the humidity was so brutal – that he developed both respiratory and fungal infections that took months into his discharge to heal.

The job was dangerous and unpredictable. The military police were hated by everyone, especially by those that were sympathetic to the Vietcong. The hate extended even to American GIs, since the MPs were often called in to arrest violent and drunken soldiers letting off steam on leave from the jungle. Christensen and his partners were also frequently called in to arrest AWOL (absent without leave) GIs, who flocked to Saigon in staggering numbers. He writes that in his tenure the number of AWOL soldiers never dipped below eighteen hundred. The American soldiers did not always go quietly and often resisted arrest, sometimes turning the scene into a brawling and bloody mess where the MPs needed backup.

As Christensen writes, the military police were also sitting ducks for all forms of terror, the perpetrators of which were impossible to catch. Snipers were liable to pick at them from nearby rooftops or windows, or bombs could be placed quickly and inconspicuously inside the military jeeps – even by children. Their job sometimes had them chasing thieves down dangerous, narrow, and winding alleys, frazzling their nerves and keeping them on edge. Even worse, as he writes, off-duty MPs were often unable to truly relax. Nighttime brought the sounds of artillery from the war’s front lines, serving as an uneasy and troubling background noise. Other MPs reacted to the stress of the war and their job in a number of ways. One of his early roommates casually kept a live python in a locker, mere meters from Christensen’s bed. Another inexplicably began shooting from the MP barrack’s balcony towards a truck transporting America’s allies, the South Vietnamese soldiers.

Crime against the American soldiers was rampant. Christensen writes that gangs of local thieves devised creative ways to steal from the American supply trucks, fueling the black market. Riding on motorbikes behind and alongside the trucks, they performed gravity-defying gymnastics while in motion as they would grab merchandise off the vehicle and speed off before unsuspecting driver realized what happened. Other crimes involved hookers. Sex-starved soldiers on leave would follow a hooker down an alley for a quick hookup and would instead be robbed. Others would actually engage in the act in the hooker’s room, while under the bed an unseen partner-in-crime (sometimes the girl’s mother) would reach out and pluck a few bills from the unsuspecting soldier’s wallet.

There are touching moments in the book, if one can call it that. Christensen isn’t a touchy-feely guy and his descriptions of these interactions come across as matter-of-fact and straight-forward. He writes of his admiration for the mainstream Saigon residents, mostly decent people trying hard to eke out a living. He notes their survivors’ mentality, and describes as they shrug off hardships and get back on their feet. In another chapter, he writes of meeting a group of cute Vietnamese kids, friendly and smiling to the MPs. But they were basically homeless street urchins living a hard life, sadly sleeping in a nearby cemetery. He writes of saying goodbye to his parents before shipping out to the army, facing an unknown future. And in one of the book’s most touching moments, he writes of his homecoming a year later, sitting quietly in his childhood room, the horrors of the war behind him.

Christensen was discharged in mid-1970 and less than 48 hours later was back home, a transition that was so fast it was jarring. He writes of his difficulty in adjusting to civilian life, suffering from PTSD until the return to martial arts would quiet his soul. He would later draw upon his MP experience for his police career, viewing it at five years’ experience combined into one year. A brown belt in karate at the time of his service, he realized that a more realistic and practical street-fighting style was needed, which he later taught privately and also to the police and military.

Christensen would be the first to admit that this not a book of heroics. This is not Band of Brothers or The Sands of Iwo Jima. But he took his job and his service in an unpopular war very seriously. The book clocks in at over 300 pages but his stories will hook you in. A worthwhile and moving read.

If you want to read another Book Corner article, please visit this review by Evan Rothfeld:


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