Warning: Contains strong language and graphic descriptions of violence
This story took place in Vietnam, but it's about any violent conflict. And it's not about me, it's about the very real nightmares we can find ourselves living if we don't reason things out for ourselves, and continue to let movies, television, and the violent fantasies of others do our thinking for us.
For the year I was there, my job mostly consisted of driving a truck and slinging sandbags. I never lost any close friends or killed anyone. There is still a feeling of guilt for not having suffered "enough" even though what I experienced puts me through almost overwhelming grief sometimes for the people involved in what I saw. It's senseless, but it's almost as if by having more pain I could somehow lessen the pain of others carrying horrors that would make my memories seem like welcome relief to them. There were some who went through much more, and some who went through much less, but in the end what matters is that we try to learn from all our experiences and then use them to benefit ourselves and others.
At times I'm filled with anger and resentment for the stupidity and gullibility of a major part of the human race. The vast ocean of shallow, psychotically romantic hype fodder called humanity that doesn't have the sense to see the reality of pain, grief, and horror of war and death. Even those are all just words that don't begin to convey the convoluted tangle of feelings involved. Then I remember that if I'd known then what I know now, I'd never have gone to that miserable place myself. But I didn't know. I couldn't have known what is so obvious to me now until after the experience. I don't mean to imply that I think the world could destroy all it's weapons and then everything would be paradise. Evil is a very real thing and sometimes must be fought. I doubt for example that a loving note to Hitler would have changed the fate of six million Jews. But "the young want to die nobly, the wise, to live humbly". Evil takes many forms, and one of them is the willingness of governments, businesses, and individuals to corrupt and steer youthful naiveté, exuberance, and strength toward terrible destruction because of petty dedication to their own purposes, no matter what the cost, as long as the cost doesn't seem to be directly their own.
I'd only been in country for a few weeks when a couple of guys and I went into the village of Duc Pho to get haircuts. We were excited and sort of mesmerized by the fact that we were actually in a tropical country, in a war, and all on our own. Sort of like going to Disneyland for the first time and finding a sign inside warning "assassins in the park, enter at your own risk." We walked into the town orphanage which was a small, high walled schoolyard with a large rambling building inside where the barber was located.
I sat down in a rickety chair, laid my rifle up against the wall next to me, and the barber began cutting my hair. Suddenly he jumped aside as another Vietnamese grabbed my rifle, jacked a round into the chamber, put the muzzle inches from my nose and shouted "NOBODY MOVE!" My friends could do nothing. As he glared at me over the top of the sights, I clearly realized that my time on earth was over, that I was a dead man. I remember being suddenly sick with sadness for myself, and thinking that it wasn't fair. It just really wasn't fair at all! We looked at each other for what seemed forever, and then he smiled. He said "Everything OK, no problem, nobody shoot!" Then he lowered my rifle, handing it to me, and said sternly "You no do! You no leave weapon alone, ever! No do ever, or you maybe die!" He was in civilian clothes, but turned out to be an officer in the South Vietnamese Army.
It may come as no surprise that I always remembered what he said, and especially the way he said it. For the first time I realized that it was no game, it was all too real. Nothing and nobody can save me if I get careless. Whatever our age, childhood is over the day we lose that sense of immortality, and it never comes back. It's odd how sure we are that we're aware of everything, until we suddenly get shocked into the reality of how little we actually perceive.
One night I was sitting in a bunker watching a battery of 105mm Howitzers during a fire mission. They were about 100 yards away and firing right over a group of huge boulders that had a bunker sitting on top which was in a perfect spot to watch the perimeter. As they fired again, an unexpected flash and boom split the night, and a billowing mushroom of smoke and dust shot from the bunker on the rocks. Somehow a round had been fired point blank into the bunker from one of the cannons. We didn't know whether anyone was in the bunker or not until a minute later when the most agonized, piercing, terrified scream I'd ever heard cut through the dead silence that followed the explosion. At least one man, no doubt badly wounded, was buried in the collapsed bunker. For a while there was horrifying silence, then another awful, long, anguished scream. Then silence. Then another scream, then whimpering. This went on for what seemed like a couple of hours, although I doubt it was actually that long, with the sounds slowly growing weaker until they either got him out, or he passed out, or died. We never knew which it was.
We'd just crawled into our cots after another exhausting day of digging holes and filling sandbags (we usually called them mudbags for good reason) when a series of jarring explosions put us on our feet grabbing for boots, rifles, ammo, and set us running from our tents to the bunkers. I'd only been in country for a short while and other than a few incoming mortar rounds, nothing much had happened in that time. As I ran out of the tent more explosions went off, and then I saw something that still sends chills up my spine. The bunker out on the perimeter in front of me, full of guys in my company, was exploding with huge sprays of sparkling fire jetting from the door and windows, and everyone was running for cover in total confusion.
We grouped up and formed a secondary perimeter behind any cover we could find, but the attack was over as quickly as it had begun and then the cleaning up began. Luckily I didn't have to pull the dead and wounded out of the bunkers, but was in one of them moments later to replace the guys they had hauled out. The dirt floors of the bunkers had been drenched in blood and it created patches of gooey mud with a chilling odor. The sandbags and wooden bracing had been blown apart, and my fear was more that it would all collapse and bury us than that the VC would attack again. But the rest of the night while very scary, was uneventful.
We saw what had happened the next day. The VC had crawled across rice paddies in front of us, crept in through concertina wire, trip flares, and claymore mines, jacked apart some metal bars covering a drainpipe, using the pipe to crawl under a dirt road, and crawled up and down a weed filled ditch behind seven or eight bunkers full of wide awake men on a moonlit night. They then simultaneously began throwing three and four satchel charges into each bunker and as the charges exploded made a quick and clean escape. But that wasn't the end of it. After a couple of days in the high heat and humidity, the blood saturated dirt began to rot. For the next couple of months while we were in the area we had to sit in those damaged bunkers at night surrounded by the overpowering stench of rot and death. Several times as we were heading to the perimeter to pull guard duty we were told that intelligence had been received that we should expect a massive offensive with the possibility of being overrun by a "human wave" attack. That didn't happen or I wouldn't be writing this. But add up the horror of that smell with the fear of the attack and you have nights guaranteed to last your nerves the rest of your life whether anything happened or not.
I slammed the shift into a higher gear, bouncing and laughing with my "shotgun" rider and flying down the road toward somewhere. It didn't really matter where, we just hoped we could find some cold beer and a safe place to sleep. As we barreled through villages we could tell how the people there felt about things. If they smiled and waved they were friendlies. If they frowned and threw rocks they were VC, or VC sympathizers. Hopefully all we would get was a dent or two from rocks. It could always be worse.
We usually drove in convoys. Long lines of trucks sometimes joined by tanks or armored personnel carriers for protection. Every so often a helicopter gunship would scream low overhead with a deafening roar as it patrolled the roads, guarding the convoys and looking for a little something to do. Like unleashing the unbelievable firepower they carried in the form of rockets, grenade launchers, and most impressive to me, miniguns, which were super machine guns with firing rates so high that when they went off all you saw was unbroken red lines of tracers and all you heard was a continuous burp so loud your ears would ring for quite awhile if they were close enough. At the other end of all that was hell on earth. Hauling ass down a road in a truck with an M16 at your side and gunships and tanks around, or sitting in a bunker surrounded by a considerable selection of deadly weapons could make you feel powerful and invincible at times. That was a very welcome fantasy. Most of the time I had the much more realistic and stressful awareness that I was in a very dangerous place, and if it was my turn to get it, no attitude or weapon in the world would save me. But the attitude was also valuable. We had to try to convince ourselves that we were dangerous too, and anyone with a gun really can be. Sometimes feeling that way was the only way people stayed sane, but it's an exhausting way to live.
The bunker was ready for the night. The machine gun, claymore mines, grenade launcher, hand grenades, ammo and flares were all laid out and ready to go. The four of us were sitting back in the relative coolness of the early evening, watchful, but just talking and relaxing after a long hard day. Our shifts of staying awake all through the night on guard would start soon enough. This was the best time of the day. I felt lazy and comfortable just talking with friends.
Then one of them got an idea. "Let's shoot a few flares into the village. That'll wake 'em up!" I was always uncomfortable around that sort of thing, but what the hell, we shot them at each other now and then as a sort of sick joke. Why should the villagers be exempt? The instigator cut off the little parachute attached to the flare so that it would really fly, and smacked the cap to launch it toward the houses a few hundred yards away. Much to our surprise, he actually hit a house, and in no time at all quite a little fire was in progress on the roof. A crowd of villagers quickly gathered, running and yelling and trying to put out the fire. I felt kind of guilty, but couldn't help but laugh a little as my buddy did a little victory dance and whooped it up. I don't know when it all really started, but what had begun as a little joke soon became something else.
We were inside a bunker which is a tiny building built of sandbags, with it's confinement able to amplify gunfire into hammering explosions inside that could actually be felt as concussions in your body. What had been a relaxing, friendly evening abruptly turned into a horrifying nightmare as without warning the machine gun went off, quickly followed by an M16 on full auto, and the hollow "thunk" of the grenade launcher, all accompanied by bright flashes and unbelievable noise. While I had been sitting by the back door, my buddies had begun a killing frenzy up front, and as I looked up I saw a vision straight out of Hell. As I write this it seems almost like a joke to try to describe those emotions and perceptions with words. That's something that could never be done.
As I realized what I was seeing, I remember bringing up my rifle with a raging elation, and a desire to join in and KILL THE DIRTY BASTARDS! As quickly as the feeling came it disappeared, thank God, before I pulled the trigger. And I have thanked God thousands of times since that night. The rage was replaced with a terrified, paralyzing fascination while tracers ripped into the crowd, grenades exploded around them, and horrible shrieks, screams, and cries of agony from the wounded and dying men, women, and oh my God, children bored into my brain and scorched out gaping wounds which will never, ever, ever be gone from my memory.
All of a sudden the firing stopped with a shocking silence. And then even with gunfire deadened ears, the sounds of wounded and dying human beings cut through the night air in a crystal clear, sickening wail. I just stood there in a stupor unable to move or think a coherent thought for what seemed like a long time. What happened the rest of that night is gone from my memory. Thank you God.
The story was told of VC being shot at, and the casualties were blamed on the village being too close to our perimeter bunkers. The story worked just fine for the record. But we knew. And so did they.
The next day the village showed up in all it's funerary finery. Led by the elders, the people held a procession by the bunker that had, in just a few sickening moments, destroyed so many people. So many precious, irreplaceable lives and stories. They were dressed in beautiful, richly colored silks that flowed around them in the breeze. They carried many festive, brightly colored caskets on their shoulders. Red, gold, blue, green, yellow. The whole thing was unreal in it's color, beauty, and dignity. The bright sunlight shone down on this dream and made me wonder if it was all real.
And then I noticed how small some of the caskets were. They were too small for a real person. Why was that? Oh! They weren't too small! They were for the children! I remember feeling rather clever that I'd figured it out. So very clever, until my mind couldn't bullshit me any more. Until the whole reality hit me. Then, even though I hadn't done anything, the knowledge of what I'd seen, and of how close I'd come to being a monster out of my nightmares kicked me into a place I wouldn't be able to leave for a long, long time. Although not the only reason for the self destruction to follow, when the walls finally did begin to crumble so many years later, the process came close to killing me as it has so many others with the self medication of alcohol and drugs. When I see scenes on television of people in pain from war or anything else, it's not just pictures for me.
The people in that village were not saints. Some that died may have even been the enemy. But all of them had been living human beings. And now they were dead and gone forever. Just like the thousands of young, bright, hopeful Americans and others who made the one way trip to their doom. All I know is that from that night on my life was never the same. One of the lessons I learned then is that we may feel that life is precious, but we are all capable of terrible evil if the time is right. And that until (God forbid) the time it happens, most of us are ignorant of it, and would deny it to the grave. Which is probably just as well. Knowledge like that can be a very heavy burden. Too heavy for the many who give mute testimony by their choice to be absent from this world.
I sat on a sandbag with a cooling monsoon breeze flowing by and the fresh smell of growing things perfuming the air. Huge, white, billowing rain clouds drifted overhead with wide patches of pure blue sky standing out between them. The village looked like a tropical island in the rice paddies, with little toy palm frond houses and palm trees everywhere. It was so beautiful and alive I wanted to cry with happiness. Villagers walked on the dikes between rice paddies so green that emeralds look pale in comparison. They talked and laughed among themselves and I found myself wanting to join them. What a wonderful place to be, and a beautiful day to be alive. Then I got up, lifting my rifle, turned around and headed back to the war.
As the truck dropped the six of us off alone on the side of the mountain near Kontum, I couldn't help but wonder at the insanity that had put us there. A new firebase would be built here and we had been "volunteered" to start cutting it out of the jungle with axes and machetes. Eventually the engineers were brought in with heavy equipment to really do the job, as there was no way that the amount of growth that needed to be cleared away could possibly be done by sixty, let alone six men. As the years have gone by, many mysteries about the happenings in Vietnam have cleared up for me, but why our lives were risked out there remains a puzzle.
We decided to check out the trails close by to try to put a little insurance on our safety while working. None of us were used to any sort of recon patrol, so we were pretty nervous. It was a good thing we were walking slowly, because a little way down a trail I suddenly felt my boot snag a tripwire, and I froze, gritting my teeth, expecting to be blown up by my blunder. Nothing happened. Afraid to even talk or move, I quietly called to the guy in front of me to wait up. He turned, puzzled, and stopped the others. I said "I'm hooked on a trip wire. Try to find out what this damn thing is!"
At that point their eyes got wide, and they all began backing away from me down the trail. When I realized what they were doing, I as carefully as possible brought up my rifle and said "You better get back here and help me quick!" I was too scared to be really angry, and doubt that I'd have shot anybody, but thank God they didn't know that. Itchy sweat was pouring down my whole body in that miserable, scorching humidity, and my muscles were shaking and about to cramp up by the time they finally found the ends of that wire.
When a voice said "No sweat, it's only a trip flare!" I almost collapsed, puked, and cried all at once. But of course I only said something like "You assholes better not punk out on me again like that!" or some such swaggering bullshit.
It was a very good lesson though. You never know what people will really do until the pressure is on. And that changes from day to day. It was that way for them, and it's that way for me too. It seems that Vietnam veterans are all supposed to be brave, dangerous, trained killers, primed and ready to show the world that they're not to be messed with. I'm sure that some came back just like that. But training in itself doesn't make you brave, dangerous, or a killer. I, for one, went to Vietnam not feeling particularly "brave", and I surely came home with many more fears than I left with. And I learned that being able to kill someone doesn't necessarily have anything to do with courage. If you take the goodness and love out of courage, what remains is merely insanity. Insanity is nothing to be proud of. I only wish more people knew that.
Garbage detail again. Damn. Oh well, better that than burning shit. Burning shit was much worse. Our latrines were outhouses with the bottom half of an oil drum used in place of a hole in the ground. Disgust and disease prevention demanded that we pull the drums out, pour diesel fuel into the mess inside, light it up and stand there stirring it up occasionally to make sure it all burned away. Lots of fun and fragrant too. Like I said, garbage beat shit anyday.
We would load up four or five large metal trash cans brimming with rotting garbage and trash and heavy enough to need three men to comfortably lift one high enough to slide into the bed of a truck. Then we'd drive out of the firebase about a mile to the dump area where a crew of Vietnamese would be kind enough to unload it for us and put the empty cans back in the truck. Of course they did get paid. Their pay was that they got to eat that slimy, stinking, rotting garbage, swarming flies and all. And that they did, handful over skeletal handful in a horrible, frantic, disgusting way. These people were starving to death. We'd bring a little food along to help them, but it didn't make much difference. There were just too many of them.
As I'd stand there watching all this with a sickened fascination I'd wonder how they could live like that. They were the homeless in a place where "homeless" was a deadly serious thing. I came to the awareness that the reason I was in the truck with a full belly and a place to sleep, and they were just feet away actually dying of hunger with no place to go, had nothing to do with deserving anything. It was fate. Or God's will. Or luck. Whatever you called it, it had little to do with "fair". There are always those wanting something for nothing, or feeling that the world owes them something. I'm not speaking of them, and I certainly don't have all the answers. But years later when I came close to taking our version of homelessness as my only option to deal with a life I'd turned into a nightmare, I felt those feelings of frustration with mankind's selfishness even more. Anyone can end up there. But most of us have to end up there ourselves, or come very close to it, in order to see that truth in our hearts. Maybe someday we'll evolve far enough to feel enough compassion to actually do something about the unnecessary suffering of a large part of humanity without having to suffer ourselves to do it. But that isn't how it is now. And although I have much more faith in our future now than I once did, it just isn't going to change anytime soon.
I pulled the truck up next to a bunker out on the perimeter. It was an unusual vehicle. It was a 3/4 ton truck with armor plate welded to the front of the bed rising above the cab. A machine gun mount was placed in the middle allowing the gun to fire over the top of the cab. I had been ordered to take the truck to the bunker line to add the firepower of the machine gun to the already formidable line of weapons facing the rice paddies and cane fields outside the wire. On hindsight this wasn't a very good idea. While far from impregnable, a bunker is a very hard structure to destroy and can be rebuilt quickly and cheaply. A truck on the other hand is a relatively valuable, easy to destroy, and very tempting target.
I got out and hopped up into the bed to get things ready for the night. Since I had to pull guard duty anyway, the thought of spending the night in a nice, dry, relatively clean truck sounded much better than the usual damp, dirty, rat infested bunker. I loaded a belt of ammunition and settled back to begin another long, tense night.
The gun mount had a spotlight on both sides of the gun so you could see what you were shooting at in the dark. This was undoubtedly designed by someone who had never thought the situation through. I had no intention of ever using them to aim, as doing so would be about the same as drawing a bull's eye on your nose and shining a light on your face. But the lights were good for surveillance. I would duck below the armor plate, flip on the lights and look through a small hole drilled in the plate while swinging the gun back and forth to illuminate the landscape.
The night was very dark. I had just flipped on the lights and started moving the gun, when right in front of me almost to the concertina wire a VC sapper jumped up and started running. I was startled for a second, but yanked the charging handle, swung the gun around on him, and totally forgetting what an easy target I made, started shooting. As the tracers caught up to him, he dove below one of the dikes of a paddy. By this time someone had popped a hand flare, and the landscape was bathed in the eerie Halloween glow of it's flame. The only sound was the hissing of the flare drifting down from far above on it's little parachute. Suddenly the man jumped up a short distance from where he had disappeared and began zig-zagging away across the landscape. I started firing, following him with tracers, but every time the rounds caught up to him he would dive and disappear again. This went on for quite a few minutes until he finally made it into the cover of a cane field and was gone for good. If I'd hit him he never showed it.
I yelled out at the night "Motherfucker, you DESERVE to get away!" and really meant it. I was laughing with the stress and adrenaline rush, but was absolutely furious at myself for missing him. I was a pretty good shot and I wanted that bastard DEAD! He had been only seconds away from lobbing a satchel charge or two into my truck, and that could have very easily ended in disaster for me. That, plus the sick and all too common conviction men are subliminally taught from boyhood, that killing a man would make me more of one, only added to the anger.
Very quickly those feelings were tempered with the awareness that I had just witnessed the bravest thing I had ever seen. That guy had single-handedly crept up to a perimeter of barbed wire, claymore mines and trip flares, backed by bunkers filled with soldiers equipped with quite an array of deadly weapons, and all for the purpose of destroying one lousy truck. Or he had possibly not been alone, but had taken the heat on himself to save his friends. Either way it was amazing. I think we were all stunned by the display of courage and skill we had just seen. It had been something totally outside my previous experience. Then as I began to realize how close I had skirted death, the raw reality of our situation set in once again. It was impossible for me to stay aware of how dangerous Vietnam was on a continuous basis and still maintain the ability to function. But every so often a reminder would jolt me back into the paralyzing fear, and once again I'd just have to hang on and wait until it slowly drifted away.
The anger that I'd felt on failing to kill that man, along with many other terrible memories ate at me for years. But slowly as time passed, my mind began to heal, and I found my heart opening to a more loving, kind, and spiritual way of life. The anger turned to acceptance, and then one fine day to gratitude. I am so very glad I don't have the death of another human being on my conscience. He was an enemy soldier fully intending to kill me if he could, and if I had killed him I'm sure I could accept it as just another part of my life and a necessary action at the time. But on those nowadays rare nights when I wake up feeling lost, alone, and afraid, with Vietnam all around me, the relief of not having killed him helps me find my way back to my warm, safe bed a lot sooner than those old feelings used to. Love and kindness are such beautiful, healing things.
(To Be Continued in July Issue)