Saigon to Pleiku by David Grant Noble
David Grant Noble’s archeological work at sites like Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon has resulted in numerous publications. His eye for detail combined with a respectful approach to historical exploration drives his work.
Noble’s latest, Saigon to Pleiku, is a departure from his previous books. It is a memoir, a reflection on an immensely transformative part of his life presented primarily through the lens of personal letters that David sent to his family while stationed in Vietnam in the early ‘60s. His mother held on to these correspondences for decades, only returning them before she passed away. In addition to the insightful letters is a slideshow of powerful imagery sprinkled with contemporary reflections from an older, wiser, yet no less pugnacious Noble.
Initially sent to Saigon, a proficiency in the French language found Noble relocated to the countryside. Acting as a civilian translator, Noble helped establish a field office which he later ended up running. During this time, he found himself drawn to the Montagnards (a French carryover term for the indigenous peoples of the region) whilst simultaneously attempting to gather wartime intelligence. His stories and photo-documentation of the Montagnards, Viet Cong prisoners and the overall scope of his experience in the conflict is breathtaking. Noble himself explains how photography allowed him to overcome the irrational biases he initially held towards the Vietnamese, and the Montagnards in particular. These preconceptions were replaced with a respect and admiration for indigenous cultures and the dignity of indigenous peoples.
Towards the end of his tour, Noble’s questioning of US military interest and action in Vietnam grew to a tipping point. Technically speaking, Noble’s military history is classified, but his experiences with the Vietnamese people and the war itself had a profound, cathartic effect. As a counterintelligence veteran, Noble was the unknowing beneficiary of an experiential education that few others could understand, which in turn gave him a unique perspective.
Saigon to Pleiku is a memoir of transformation-an origin story of sorts-with Noble ultimately manifesting his knowledge, experience and intelligence through activism, education, and published works.
Review by Joel