TARNISHED BRASS CURTAIN: A NOVEL OF VIETNAM
“”Tarnished Brass Curtain: is a frame story, taking place during a single week in October, 1968, with flashback chapters from one week to six months. It opens in a Navy Public Affairs Office on the west coast. The admiral’s son, a helicopter pilot, has apparently gone underground rather than return to his unit in the Mekong Delta. The frame deals with how the command handles the PR crisis.
The flashbacks show combat, discussions of conscience and loyalty, and how the lieutenant reached his decision.
Two men are shown in transition: Fred Hetherington, the young lieutenant, who grows throughout the story, matures and goes from uncertainty to conviction; and Dan Levin, the older senior chief journalist in charge of the enlisted staff of the PAO, who goes from certainty to denial. The younger man is a product of generations of military tradition, son and grandson of flag officers. The older man, a career navyman, is an outsider in this military world; he is ambitious, Jewish, has intellectual pretensions and an almost fatal love for words and their meanings, without a full understanding of their consequences.
The story begins in the Public Affairs office of the commander of the Pt. Cambiar, Calfifornia Navy Base. A call comes in from the local newspaper concerning a rumor that the commander’s son, a navy combat helicoptaer pilot, has gone underground, rather than return to his base in the Mekong Delta after being home on leave for his mother’s funeral.
The command chief of staff not only wants to suppress the rumor, but actually fabricates a message implying that the pilot is on extended leave. The decision is also made not to inform the admiral, who is still mourning the loss of his wife.
The PAO staff leadership—the acting public affairs officer and the leading chief petty officer -- is divided on the suppression of the truth.
The pilot begins to discover that his action was not as uncomplicated as he thought. He finds himself unwilling to be used as a propaganda tool by the anti-war group with which he has sought sanctuary. He ultimately prepares a brief statement of justification to the press, which is expanded and amended by the group’s leader to advance anti-war, anti-government opinions.
Flashback show earlier conversations with the chief and the pilot’s first combat mission.
In the present, the chief, Dan Levin, is concerned about his conversations with Lt. Hetherington, and is worried that he may be the cause of Lt. Hetherington’s action, become involved in the furor, and lose his up-coming promotion. He attempts to hide from himself his involvement, although his wife is sure of the reason he seems disturbed. Dan is a perpetual student, now deeply involved in the intellectual exercise of dissent, from Antigone to Martin Luther King.
After Fred’s doctored statement is read to the press, all hell breaks loose at Navy headquarters, and a high-powered public affairs officer is called in from Washington.
A news conference is set up for the Admiral, who is still unaware of the coverup. He finds out during the conference.
Meanwhile, Fred has left his sanctuary and gone to Dan’s house. Dan reluctantly admits him. Dan’s wife, Natalie, cuts through all the strings and forces resolution by calling the admiral and inviting him over.
Resolution comes with Fred gaining understanding from his father and turning himself in. Dan’s promotion is safe, but despite his intellect, he is still vaguely and deliberately unaware of the subtleties what has happened.