Robert Ritzenthaler is a Reporters Inc. Advisory Committee Member, currently based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. To learn more about him, click here.

Jungles and Deserts

American Foreign Policy Scrutinized in New Novel

April 2020

Editor’s Note: The Reporters Inc. is pleased to present exclusive excerpts from writer Robert Ritzenthaler’s upcoming new novel, Jungles and Deserts.

Ritzenthaler was born on a U.S. Marine Corps base in Hawaii four months before his father was sent to Vietnam in 1965. He began to explore and write about his father’s war experiences and their impact on his family while studying journalism and history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the early 1980s.

In 1987, Ritzenthaler traveled to Central America, where he documented the effects of U.S. intervention and civil war on indigenous ethnic groups. The following summer he lived on the West Bank, where he covered the first Palestinian uprising for newspapers in the Midwest.

For the last several years, Ritzenthaler has worked as a filmmaker in Africa, Asia, and Latin America; for 10 years he was based in Nairobi, Kenya, documenting the AIDS pandemic.?Jungles and Deserts is his first novel, weaving historical events with riveting fiction. The book is?dedicated to the memory of his father, United States Marine Corps Captain James M. Ritzenthaler, who took his own life after a long battle with?post-traumatic stress.


? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? *???? *???? *???? *????? *

Your ghost, your sad ghost, father, often before my mind, impelled me to the threshold of this place.

?Virgil, The Aeneid


It’s 1989, a time of great change and upheaval. The Cold War is grinding to a close, pro-democracy students are clashing with the Chinese government, and apartheid in South Africa is in a death spiral. Against this backdrop, journalism student Tom Pierce is haunted by the lingering ghosts of Vietnam and by his uncertainty over the goals and purpose of journalism. Through a contact at his university, and nudged along by a photographer who becomes a mentor and traveling companion, Tom leaps at the opportunity to begin his career with a visit to the’south American nation of Tiritipa.

This mysterious country?akin to Robert Stone’s “Tecan” (A Flag for Sunrise) and Eugene Burdick/William J. Lederer’s “Sarkhan” (The Ugly American)?is in the midst of a brutal civil war fueled by U.S. intervention.?On his journey, Tom encounters Commander Maria Booker, an elusive figure known for acts of both cruelty and benevolence. Booker has been the country’s military leader, and de facto dictator, for the past five years. But is she a revolutionary in the mold of Che Guevara, or more like Colonel Kurtz of?Apocalypse Now?

Tom?s experiences in Tiritipa, including the suspicious death of a rival journalist, exorcise his demons and force him to reconcile with estranged loved ones. Bookended by the Gulf of Tonkin Incident in Vietnam and alleged Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq, the book presents a rigorous commentary on U.S. foreign policy and adventurism.




August 4, 1964 was a rough day in a season of rough days in 1960s America. That evening, federal authorities discovered the bodies of three civil rights workers?James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner?in an earthen dam in Philadelphia, Mississippi. The three, helping to register black voters as part of Freedom Summer, had been abducted and murdered six weeks earlier after investigating the racially motivated torching of Mount Zion Methodist Church in nearby Longdale.

Late that night, millions of Americans sought refuge from the troubled times in the screens of their televisions. Most tuned in to watch guest hosts Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorm? prattle with Nipsey Russell and Joe Garagiola on NBC?s Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. A smattering of more socially minded viewers opted to catch Jackie Robinson and William F. Buckley, Jr. debate presidential candidate Barry Goldwater on ABC?s Les Crane Show.

The broadcasts were interrupted at eleven-thirty PM Eastern Standard Time by President Lyndon Johnson, standing in an undertaker’s suit at a podium in the White House. He looked grave, unsure maybe, as he prepared to deliver an important message to the voters?to the people?of the United States. It pertained to an alleged second attack on the USS Maddox by North Vietnamese vessels in the far-off Gulf of Tonkin. In justifying his ?positive reply??U.S. naval airstrikes?the President said: ?This new act of aggression, aimed directly at our own forces, again brings home to all of us in the United States the importance of the struggle for peace and security in Southeast Asia. Aggression by terror against the peaceful villagers of South Vietnam has now been joined by open aggression on the high seas against the United States of America.?

The architects glanced at each other in the wings.

After insisting that the United States had no interest in a wider war, the President went on to say: ?I have today met with the leaders of both parties in the Congress of the United States and I have informed them that I shall immediately request the Congress to pass a resolution making it clear that our Government is united in its determination to take all necessary measures in support of freedom and in defense of peace in Southeast Asia.?

The architects nodded?the wheels were in motion.

The next day, newspapers across the country beat the drum. The Recorder-Gazette in Greenfield, Massachusetts led with the headline: U.S. PLANES HIT NORTH VIETNAM PT BOAT BASES IN RETALIATION FOR TWO ATTACKS ON OUR DESTROYERS. The Daily Herald in Austin, Minnesota proclaimed: NAVY SCORES HEAVILY IN LESSON TO ENEMY. The Press Courier in Oxnard, California heralded: RED PT BASES BOMBED; U.S. BUILDS VIET NAM FORCES.

Two days later, with broad public support, the U.S. Congress overwhelmingly passed The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, stating in part: ?Be it resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, that the Congress approves and supports the determination of the President, as Commander in Chief, to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.?

The President had a blank check, and the architects of the Vietnam War were off and running.

In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a young man read the news during his lunch break at the Harley-Davidson plant. He decided then and there to join the military, to do what he could to stop the dominos from falling. He’d seen The Sands of Iwo Jima in his youth, and he dreamed of joining the Marine Corps. He asked his girlfriend if she’d be willing to follow him on his new path.

At Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, a gunnery sergeant heard the news from Walter Cronkite. The grizzled Marine had been through this before?he’d fought in Korea?and he knew it was just a matter of time before he’d be sent away again. He gathered his family around him and put his green-eyed little boy on his lap, intent on enjoying whatever time they had left.

Our assignment was to find them.


Chapter One: Purgatorio


Aeroflot Flight 666 made a hard night landing, bouncing and fishtailing down the truncated runway. The Soviet workhorse ground to a halt, aided by the back-blast of its twin jet thrusters. Jack and I sprang from out seats, only to be ordered back down by the grim Russian flight attendant.

?Sidet!? he barked, cigarette dangling from his lips.

Outside the plane, a rolling staircase crept out of the darkness, and a moment later the flight’s handful of weary passengers climbed down to the flat-packed earth of Tiritipa. A light rain sifted down from low clouds. The air felt bent with moisture and a waft of lemongrass. I was twenty-two. It was my first time on foreign soil of any kind?if you could call that rock-hard runway soil.

We jogged toward the clack-clacking of raindrops pelting the roof of a cinderblock structure the size of a high-school gym?the main, the only, terminal of Nacahuasu International Airport.

A soldier with deep-set eyes, wavy black hair, and a sidearm holstered along the curve of her camouflaged hip guarded the terminal?s glass double doors. Jack nudged my arm and nodded at the stubby weapon.

?Makarov,? he whispered.? ?Soviet standard issue since 1951.?

Jack was five years older than me, and even though I’d known him for only a few months he was already becoming more than a friend?a mentor, a brother.

We stepped forward, and the soldier looked up and slowly took our measure against the backdrop of the drizzly equatorial night. She smiled and waved us to a desk just inside the terminal. An officer missing two fingers on his right hand examined our passports and asked each of us for forty U.S. dollars.

?Para las visas,? he said politely.

He placed our bills in a metal strongbox, stamped our passports?entry date May 13, 1989?and pointed us to the baggage area. The terminal was mostly empty. As Jack and I shouldered our backpacks, a tall, lanky black man approached. He wore blue jeans, an Adidas T-shirt, and a Boston Red Sox cap, everything in his ensemble looking new, fresh out of the box, like a costume. He disarmed us with a toothy grin and sized us up with a quick squint.

?Are you?Tom?? he asked. The lilting, pidgin accent of the Atlantic coast.

?Yes,? I said.

He offered his hand. ?I’m Victor Clemons. Maria Booker sent me.?

I shook his hand but couldn’t speak. I’d been hearing Maria Booker’s name for so long I was starstruck. The name hung between us like the night’s thick dew. Maria Booker.

?And this must be Jack.?

?That’s me,? Jack said.

?Let’s move. Your chariot awaits.?

A pick-up truck waited in the parking lot. A clap of thunder sounded in the distance and the rain started coming down a bit harder. We jumped in the front seat and headed east through the gate, passing an anti-aircraft battery, a rotating satellite dish, and, as a monument to the Cold War, a gutted fighter jet mounted on a pedestal.

?MiG,? Jack muttered.

We continued along a slick, dark road through hardscrabble terrain. Near the top of a rocky hill, Victor pulled over and slid out of the truck.

?Follow me.?

We hiked the rest of the way to the crest, which overlooked a deep valley. Thousands of feet below, on a wide plain, was an area laced with lights. It was Tiritipa?s capital city, Tipauni, a hub of brush-war intrigue akin to Managua and San Salvador. The New York Times had claimed Tipauni?s population to be on the order of two million, and had tallied 35,000 dead countrywide since the renewal of hostilities late in 1984. CNN reported half as many residents and twice as many dead. Neither knew much about what lay on the far side of the city?Purgatorio, where masses displaced by the war were living in shanties without electricity and running water. The slum was swelling so quickly that Western news outlets?with no one allowed there to see it?could only guess how many had been forced from their home areas. Half a million? In the night, Purgatorio revealed itself with hundreds of small bonfires, a primal galaxy set beside what remained of the glittering metropolis of Tipauni. Tiritipa was reverting to the law of the jungle.

?Valle de los Hambrientos,? Victor said. ?So much suffering in the Valley of the Hungry.?

Lightning shattered the eastern sky and we darted back to the pick-up. Jack fell asleep against the window, and my ears popped as we barreled toward Tipauni. Victor would drop us at a hostel, and tomorrow we’d fetch the papers we needed to travel over the Sierra Generosa to visit Maria Booker in Crystal Cove. Victor was looking forward to getting home to the coast. He was training to be a doctor, he explained, and had spent two weeks in Tipauni attending a seminar at the national hospital and running errands for Booker’such as collecting two young journalists from the airport.

As a prompt, I told Victor I’d heard Booker was a legend.

He smiled and weighed the thought in his mind. She’d been born in Sandy Point, a hamlet ninety kilometers north of Crystal Cove, he said. Her parents had been lost at sea when she was a child. A Moravian preacher took her in. She got high marks in secondary school so the preacher sent her to the Universidad de Tipauni. In the capital she witnessed the brutality of a dictator, Juan Calvo, whose reign had been an orgy of rape, torture, and murder. His henchmen didn’t bother to conceal the bodies of political opponents, simply dumping them in the street for the vultures and feral dogs. Amid the carnage Booker learned of the Frente de los Hambrientos?the Front of the Hungry?a guerrilla movement formed more than a half-century before, in 1915, soon after the Calvo dynasty was born. After graduating as a nurse, Booker joined a band of Frente fighters in the mountains, patching up the wounded and eventually picking up a gun.

She quickly proved herself to be the bravest of soldiers. In recognition of her record she was appointed commander of the Karaya Brigade, based in Crystal Cove, a year after the Frente took power in early 1984. It was the most violent zone in Tiritipa when she took up her post, making her the government’s most visible military leader and something of an international figure. Since then, according to Victor, she’d labored to bring the Frente and counter-revolutionaries together, encumbered by historical baggage.

We were traveling directly east, toward the daunting wall of the Sierra Generosa, which cut the country in half. In the west were Mestizos, descendants of the Spanish who?d settled in the valley in the 1500s. In the east were Indians and Victor’s people, the Creoles, descendants of Caribbean slaves. Historically, Indians and Creoles had been allied with the British. In colonial times, Spanish rulers taught Mestizos to hate the rival British, and by extension the Indians and Creoles. In turn, the British taught Indians and Creoles to hate the Spanish and Mestizos. Before Calvo fell, people in the east and west had little interaction. Apart from a division of Calvo?s secret police stationed on the coast to guard his emerald mines, few Mestizos crossed to the other side of the mountains. Tiritipa was effectively two nations?the Spanish-speaking West and the English-speaking East, with a sprinkling of Indian languages in the stew.

Frente leaders had long dreamed of a unified Tiritipa?one shared equally among Mestizos, Indians, and Creoles. After the victory, Frente soldiers from the west crossed the mountains and spread into areas where Mestizos had rarely traveled. There was a clash of cultures, with the locals making little distinction between Calvo?s henchmen and the Frente. Both were seen as the white man’the foreigner. For their part, most Mestizo soldiers treated Indians and Creoles as inferior, fueling the counter-revolution. It was widely accepted that Maria Booker was changing these dynamics. As a Creole woman with Indian blood and as an ambassador of the Frente, she was bridging east and west, black and white, male and female, breaking down walls that had existed for centuries. But it was also alleged that Booker could be suddenly and irredeemably cruel, acting as judge, jury, and executioner for any transgressor?military or civilian?who crossed her path. One crime in particular provoked her wrath.

The rain intensified. Jack was snoring lightly now, his head resting on my shoulder, and Victor was hunched forward to steer the truck carefully through the slalom of rounded brush-covered foothills. The brush disappeared as we came to the floor of the Valley of the Hungry, and Tiritipa took on the appearance of stark Midwestern farm country. This was oddly comforting.

?Checkpoint,? Victor said.

A guardhouse on the left shoulder of the road loomed out of the rain. Two soldiers in ponchos emerged from the hut, casually toting AK-47s. I nudged Jack awake and pointed to the weapons. The guards swaggered to the centerline and signaled us to stop. Victor pulled up just short of a spiked rack in our path.

?Hola, Rico,? Victor greeted one of the soldiers. ??C?mo est???

?Bien, Victor.?

Victor exited, stepped beneath the awning over the guardhouse door, and shared a smoke with Rico. The other soldier peered at me through the windshield before joining Victor and her comrade. She asked Victor for a puff of the cigarette but he rebuffed her.

??Por favor, hombre!? she implored.

?No, Luc?a,? he asserted, ?Ni tabaco ni alcohol para ti . . .?

He waved for Jack and me to leave the truck. As we approached, I saw that Lucia was pregnant, her rifle resting on the hump of her belly.

Jack addressed the soldiers in fluent Spanish, putting them at ease. I could understand the language but struggled to speak it. I gave it a shot but stumbled badly, incorrectly conjugating a verb and making an absurd gurgling noise when trilling my Rs. Luc?a laughed as she strolled to the truck and climbed awkwardly onto all fours to examine the undercarriage. Then she popped the hood and checked the engine. Victor saw me staring.

?Searching for bombs,? he said.

Satisfied the truck was clean, Luc?a dragged the spikes out of our way and we took off. The rain had cleared by the time we arrived in Tipauni?s west end, a smoggy, cacophonous quarter clogged by taxis and busetas. Even at the late hour people hustled in the gutter, pushed to the street by sidewalk craftsmen hawking everything from coffins to hammocks to junk art. Every few yards Victor swerved to avoid a pedestrian, displaying his bilingual skills with a slew of English and Spanish expletives. He eventually parked in front of a white one-story building marked by a neon sign: Hostal Para?so. A grizzled old man wearing a nightshirt and a frown answered the bell and let us into a lush, fern-filled lobby. Water dripped off our bags onto the spotless parquet floor. The man glowered.

?Lo siento,? Jack apologized.

?S?, lo siento,? I parroted.

The man signed us in and gave us a key to a room on the far side of a small courtyard. Victor took his leave and Jack and I settled into a tight space with teal walls, two single beds, a corner sink, and something I hadn’t seen since Catholic grade school? a 3-D picture of Jesus Christ. I lifted the framed picture. At one angle Jesus looked well-groomed and peaceful and held his hands in the air, index and middle fingers righteously extended. Tilted the other way, the scene completely changed. The expression on Christ’s face was now pained, blood dripped down his forehead, and he displayed the Stigmata? the Holy Wounds?on his palms. I tilted the frame back and forth.

Like Maria Booker, what you saw depended entirely on the angle you took.

Jack wiped down an aluminum case and gingerly cracked it open. Inside were two Nikon F3s, an assortment of lenses, a light meter, a flash unit, a Sony Walkman, several cassette tapes, and dozens of rolls of film. He pulled a cloth camera bag from his backpack and stocked it with equipment.

?Check out the lizard,? he said, closing the case.

A green finger-length lizard was perched high on the wall above the sink. It stood motionless, then snap!?it was a foot down the wall gobbling a mosquito. Jack set his travel alarm for six-thirty AM and squirted insect repellent onto his bare arms. He rubbed it in, passed the bottle to me, and fluffed his pillow.

?What do you make of this?? Jack asked.

?We’re not in Wisconsin anymore.?


For more information about Jungles and Deserts, Robert Ritzenthaler can be reached at .


One person commented on "Jungles and Deserts"
Feel free to join the conversation and leave a comment as well.

  • Christine says:

    A good read

Leave a Comment

Comments will be posted following administrative approval.

The Reporters Inc. is a proud member of the Institute for Nonprofit News, a consortium of more than 300 nonprofit newsrooms dedicated to serving the public interest. Our articles are syndicated and shared with hundreds of other media organizations, online magazines, top blogs, etc. Please send news, feature and investigative story tips and ideas to .


Looking for one of our previous articles, investigations, commentaries, essays or book excerpts? Search our archives by typing key words into our SEARCH bar above, or at the top left corner of our site!


Skip to content