It’s been more than three decades since Paul Morton experienced the events that inspired his recently completed novel about covert military action in Laos and Burma during the Vietnam War era.
But Morton said he realized even then during his assignment as security to a military intelligence unit in northern Thailand and Laos that a story was embedded in the experiences.
It wasn’t until more recently, however, after a 20-year career in law enforcement in Ventura, Calif., a master’s degree in counseling psychology and a writing career in consumer and trade publications, that the story made it onto the page.
The resulting fiction, Morton’s first book to be published, is titled “Track of the Dragon.” Morton recently signed a publishing deal with Los Angeles-based publisher Bonus Books, and the book is due out in October.
“Track of the Dragon” follows specialist Peter Moore through South Vietnam as he is assigned to a top-secret unit conducting missions in Las and Burma. When the team is abandoned and presumed lost, the soldiers must find the line between duty, honor and survival.
“Very few first-time novelists are able to create page-turners,” said Jeffrey Stern, president and publisher of Bonus Books and its imprint, Volt Press, in a release. “But with his extensive background as a magazine writer combined with his own firsthand military experience, Paul has managed to bring us a story that is not only thrilling and smart, but also jarringly relevant in the face of today’s conflict.”
Morton said he started writing the book in 1980, but put it aside to work on another novel. After a connection drew Morton into a conversation with Bonus Books, he began working again on the piece in earnest, he said, and completed the 400-page work in a burst of writing.
Morton said the book is based in part on his experiences in the Army, where he said he got a glimpse into a war that was unpublicized and unfounded, a war that essentially did not exist to those who were not there.
“It didn’t take much to realize that there was actually a whole different war fought in Laos, and it was being fought by the CIA and their military arm, which was primarily mercenaries,” Morton said. “You knew this was going on all the time because you hear about things and you see things, and that’s kind of where my ideas started.”
The source of the funds for this war that wasn’t a war was also mysterious, to some degree, Morton said. A robust opium trade out of the Golden Triangle was a likely suspect, he said, since funding certainly wasn’t coming from the usual channels.
Morton said he chose to write his book as fiction because of military secrecy issues as well as a desire to expand the book beyond his own experiences. While his book focuses in part on an American soldier, it also looks at the war from the perspective of the Burmese drug traders. One of his characters is a young drug trader whose path eventually crosses Moore’s.
Morton said while the war provides the backdrop for the story, much of the writing is about the psychological experience of war.
“I think I tend to write stuff that’s a little bit edgy and pretty visceral,” he said. “Because of my psychological training, I tend to get inside people’s heads more for elements of their motivation and develop strong characters.”
“Track of the Dragon,” he said, is no exception.
“It’s about how this young man, who is very idealistic, gets confronted with something he never had a clue existed,” he said. “Everything about it was different — not like what he expected from the military or the army. So he went through a real change. It challenged all of his beliefs. He just went through a complete metamorphosis, actually.”
Morton said while the book is fiction, he could not have written it without his own military experience.
“I would not have ever really felt the things that you don’t expect, or the magnitude of the feelings,” he said. “Times of fear are not just fear, they are terror.
Another part of war that translated itself from his experience into “Track of the Dragon” is the relationships those in the military build with each other.
“In combat, you aren’t fighting for the flag or anything like that,” he said. “You are fighting to stay alive and keep your teammate alive. That’s what makes you do what you do. I think that without having experienced some of that, I wouldn’t really have a true grasp of what some of those things meant.”
Morton said he suspects his book would appeal to readers who enjoy the works of Tom Clancy and other authors with a similar style. He said it also has a lot of relevance not only for the Vietnam war but with wars in Central America and even conflict of today in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“There are a lot of parallels to what’s going on today,” he said. “War is still war. It is the one constant variable throughout the history of mankind that has the ability to kind of inhibit the advancement of our species.”
Of all the challenges in writing his first novel, Morton said the greatest was achieving a document worthy of the sacrifice made by the men who fought the war in the shadows.
“They were willing to do that without any acknowledgement or reward for their effort,” he said. “They simply did what they had to do because it was an honorable thing to do and there weren’t any medals waiting for them, there weren’t any parades when they got home. I wanted to make it true to them.”
As for what’s next for this newly minted novelist, Morton said he’s likely to focus his future efforts on police-oriented who-done-its, applying his edgy style to the works.
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