GARRISON TALES FROM TONQUIN (Tonkin): AN AMERICAN’S STORIES OF THE FRENCH FOREIGN LEGION IN VIETNAM IN THE 1890s (1895) – Written by James O’Neill. Seven years ago here at Balladeer’s Blog I examined Washington Irving’s 1809 work The Men of the Moon. I wrote about it because of the way it used an extraterrestrial invasion of the Earth as an allegory for colonialism several decades before H.G. Wells would do so in War of the Worlds. Also because it was written at a time when it was not yet fashionable to be thinking along such lines. In 1809 those sentiments were daring, not de rigueur like they would be today.
In a similar spirit, I am now examining Garrison Tales From Tonquin, published in 1895 and written by American James O’Neill, who had served in the French Foreign Legion during the 1880s and early 1890s. Just as Washington Irving was ahead of his time with his sentiments in The Men of the Moon, James O’Neill was ahead of his time in regard to his observations on the French occupation of Vietnam during and after the Sino-French War. Readers in 1895 who were expecting Kipling would have found O’Neill to be virtually his polar opposite.
I found it staggering to read 1890s accounts written by an American fighting man in Vietnam reflecting on the ugliness and ultimate futility of the military situation. So much of O’Neill’s fictionalized accounts of his real-life experiences in Vietnam read like something from an author in the late 1960s or later using such a tableau as an allegory for America’s involvement in Indochina.
Though O’Neill’s writing makes it clear that he is expressing anti-colonialist sentiments, the stories are thankfully free of sanctimonious moralizing. The first-person narrative from his central figure in some ways anticipates hard-boiled detectives and Film Noir. The narrator has found himself in a situation filled with violence, moral ambiguity and constant danger. He no longer has any romantic notions about his own role, he’s just trying to survive.
(To underline that remark about just trying to survive let me point out that O’Neill arrived in Vietnam with just over 300 fellow Legionnaires in his unit. Only 27 of them would return.)
Sadly, James O’Neill was a victim of cosmically bad timing. When this book came out in 1895 it only sold 104 copies. If it had instead been published in 1898 or 1899, amid the Spanish-American War and the heated domestic debates about whether or not the U.S. should establish dominion over the former Spanish colony of the Philippines, it might have been a latter-day Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It may have even tipped the scales AGAINST annexing the Philippines, so close was the political outcome. There was so much public sentiment against “imperialism” that the Senate vote wound up tied, with Vice President Hobart having to cast the deciding vote in favor of acquiring the Philippines. Continue reading