I swallowed; trying hard to keep my cool. We were talking serious, big-time graft here. Questions flooded my mind. Where did even an ARVN colonel get that kind of money? Whose money was it really? Where did it come from? Why were they trying to get it out of the country? Clearly, if Saigon fell to the communists, piasters would be worthless; is that what the ARVN brass expected? Were we fighting against an inevitable takeover by Ho Chi Minh’s forces? That seemed to be what the peasants like Mama San believed and either way it seemed that they had nothing to lose. That’s what miss Yen expected and what her father feared would happen as soon as the Americans left.
I was stunned. Here were high government officials of a country the US had supported for decades in its fight against the communists and had suffered tens of thousands of deaths for and spent unknowable billions of dollars for — for what?! So these tin-pot dictators could stash millions outside the country that they probably got from the US by some subterfuge? Or worse yet by selling heroin to GIs or shipping it to the states?
I had come into the war politically agnostic. The anti-war movement was all around me but I’d ignored it and the war as though it was an annoying fly that would go away eventually. But over the past few months I’d been face to face with the death and disruption the war had brought the people of Viet Nam. And now corruption that made it all possible stared me in the face wanting me to directly participate in a scheme to profit from that death.
I was not about to do that. But at this point I needed a graceful exit, one that betrayed no anger or judgement, no threat of running to some authority to derail the scheme. Any sort of threat I appeared to make might be my last. These weren’t men to trifle with or to cross. They were no strangers to violence or death. They lived it everyday, as did the people around them.
I said to the colonel, “You know, central Jersey Bank and Trust is just a little bank serving the army post. That kind of money going through an account that usually grosses a few hundred a month wouldn’t go unnoticed even if we did figure out a way to make this all work. Aside from that, there are a lot of moving parts, a lot of ways for things to go wrong and a lot of ways for it to be noticed on this end and a lot of opportunity to end up in LBJ.”
As I was talking, it occurred to me that this could be a setup, a sting to trap DB, Virgil and me or a scheme to steal their money.
The colonel replied, “Yes, we would have to be very careful in our plans and even more careful in our execution.”
I did not like the way he lingered on the word execution.
“As I said,” interjected Virgil. “we would have to ramp this up over time so it wouldn’t seem unusual and to get enough money into the account.”
I thought to myself and nearly out loud, “Yeah and if anything goes wrong with this scheme it’ll be me that’s the fall guy..”
“I just don’t think it’ll work,” I said. “How am I going to get rid of that many piasters? Even if I buy money orders or bank drafts all over town somebody’s bound to notice and investigate. I’m sure they talk to each other in the hotel bars if nowhere else. It’s not like there wouldn’t be a paper trail. There’s gotta be a better way to get money out of the country.”
“So you’re not interested,” said the colonel.
“I’m interested. I just see more ways for things to go wrong than to go right.
DB and Virgil looked like scolded dogs. It was now clear that they hadn’t worked this out with me before hand and it seemed to the colonel that they were trying to put one over on me or him or both.
“Didn’t you GIs work out the details with the specialist before coming to me?” asked the colonel.
“This is just an informal proposal said Virgil. We just wanted to see if you were interested in principle. We still have lots of details to work out.”
“Yes, that’s apparent.” Muttered the Colonel. Then more directly, “I’m not opposed to this but there have to be many more details worked out before I could comment any further. Work it out among your selves and we’ll talk. Good day gentlemen.”
The same guard returned as the colonel touched a button on the side of his desk and ushered us out to the street. The sudden bright light made me blink and fumble for my dark glasses. The quiet dank of cigar smoke was exchanged for the riot of sound and greasy vapor of 2-stroke scooter exhaust. We caught a jitney for the New Yak Bar on Tudo Street.
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MACV = Military Assistance Command Vietnam [see wiki for more info].