by R.A. Flynn
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. No close friends died and I never 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 its 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, or that the genocide of millions of Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and others occurring throughout history would not have happened with merely a display of love and kindness on the part of the chosen targets. The list of both murderers and victims is endless and excludes no race, religion, or political ideology. 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, religions, businesses, and individuals to corrupt and steer youthful naivet, 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. We'd been attacked the week before and lost a lot of men, so tension and emotions were high and any relief no matter how short was very welcome. 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. "Lets 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 its 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 its 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 its 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 were quite likely 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 its flame. The only sound was the hissing of the flare drifting down from far above on its 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. It was impossible to gauge the location and direction of his next sprint. 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.
"Harris" was a friend of mine. He was a tall, lanky, soft spoken black man with an easy smile. A gentle man with a kind disposition and a wry sense of humor. Sometimes we'd pull guard together and talk quietly in the eerie silence of the bunkers at night. Solving the troubles of mankind, or talking about what we were going to do when we got back to "The World" helped ease the fear and tension of our situation and also helped keep us from falling asleep. Harris somehow transmitted confidence to me just by being around. He was one of those people it was hard to imagine God allowing anything bad to happen to, and being around him just felt somehow "safer".
He was in one of our bunkers that VC sappers blew up one night. He was also one of the few wounded "lightly" enough to come back to the company out of all the guys that had been in those bunkers. I never saw most of those guys again, but old Harris came walking back one day and I was so very glad to see him. But something was wrong. He was distant and cold. It was like he didn't even know me. He was scary and alien, and from then on I kept my distance. It hurt, but he had been through an experience I hadn't, and looking at him I knew that it must have been much stranger and more horrible than I could imagine.
Months later, a few of us had been drinking beer and celebrating our soon to be homecoming. We were staying in a large, relatively safe basecamp at Pleiku in a sandbagged shack my company used as a transit barracks. We were processing out to go home! Home! We couldn't believe it (we had yet to experience the "Welcome Home" of the 1960's for Vietnam Vets). The other guys had gone somewhere, and as I was sitting alone reveling in the awesome feeling that it was almost over, who should walk in but Harris! It was great to see him before I left, and I greeted him with a smile and feeling of love in my heart.
He looked at me with a funny smile, then came over and sat next to me on the bunk. He stared at me for a minute and then said "I knooow who you are! I knooow about your kind!" in an eerie, wavering voice. He sounded so much like an actor in a scary movie I thought he was kidding and waited for the punchline. But what happened next was so quick and surprising, I didn't realize what had occurred until it was over. I suddenly found myself with a choking arm around my neck, and a knee in my back with the pressure steadily increasing to the level of very serious pain. Harris began to laugh. But the sound he made was like a horrifying caricature of someone insane. It dawned on me then that this was no joke. He wasn't kidding. He was really, truly out of it, and I might be in terrible trouble. I still couldn't believe it. Then he said "I'm going to kill you now! I'm going to snap your spine! I know who you really are!" and that's when the terror kicked in. He began to slowly push in with his knee while choking me tighter, and the pain became unbelievable. The shock of what was happening was almost worse than the pain. All of a sudden the pressure was released, and I dropped to the floor. My buddies had returned, and seeing what was happening had crept up behind Harris and yanked him off of me. He didn't even fight or say anything, just sat on the bunk and stared at me looking totally vacant and emotionless. He was the most frightening person I've ever seen, then or since.
I don't know what happened to him. I don't know what weird place his mind went after the attack that awful night. And I never will know. It's just one of those things I've had to learn to accept. But something I find much harder to accept is that Harris wasn't alone. What happened to his mind happened to many, many more than just him. Who knows how many? And who knows what kind of torturous horrors they've lived with since, and may live with until the day they die? Those thoughts I sometimes find very hard to accept. But as with so many things, I'm powerless over it all. I just try to be thankful to God for the life he's given me. Thankful that I wasn't in that bunker with him. It was very close.
Harris was a kind and loving man. I like to think he found his way back. He was my friend, and I miss him.
Dust. It was everywhere and in everything. In our eyes, mouths, hair, clothes, food, and water. It was from the medevac helicopters. As the Tet offensive raged on, the choppers just kept coming in one right after the other, many times all day long, bringing in the dead and wounded from everywhere. Sometimes three or four helicopters would be waiting their turn to land so they could go back and tempt fate again to go get more. They were a constant reminder of what could happen to any of us at any time. There had always been medevacs coming in, but never anything like this. It never stopped. Whether we were building bunkers, eating chow, or trying to catch a little sleep, the unending river of pain, agony, and death kept right on coming. The wounded were quickly helped or carried off the choppers in their bloody bandages and shredded fatigues, some quiet, some moaning, some screaming, most just curled up and lost in an agony of pain and morphine. So many of them handicapped and disfigured for the rest of their lives. Then there was the neverending train of bodybags. Bags and bags full of dead men, sometimes only parts of dead men. Hauled off the choppers, dragged out of the way, and laid in a row at first, then stacked as room ran out.
Tents with their sides rolled up with surgery tables running down their centers were at the focus of all this. Medics were in constant motion from chopper to table and back again as the worst cases that had a chance, but probably wouldn't make it to a real hospital, were cut and drained and patched and sewn in a kind of horrible, extremely bloody ballet. This went on for days, and days, and days. Be all you can be.
Numbing exhaustion. Aching back, arms, legs, and mind. Suffocating tropical heat draining every ounce of motivation. Eye stinging sweat starting at my head, running down my body, and ending up in my burning, soggy boots making the heat rashes sting and burn. It's too humid for sweat to evaporate and cool like it should. How much longer can this miserable day last? Hours later these thoughts must have rolled through my mind a hundred times. Digging holes, filling sandbags, stacking them into bunker walls, digging, filling, stacking, digging, filling, stacking. And the same tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow...
Flies... they swarmed through the air by the millions, their size halfway between a housefly and a gnat, their high pitched, infuriating bzzzzzz fraying everyone's nerves and tempers to the edge as they crawled all over our exposed skin, into our eyes, noses, and ears, and tried to get between our tightly closed lips. Our arms got so tired from swatting we finally had to just let them crawl. We had been in Kontum for weeks now and the heat, humidity, dust and flies made us all feel somewhat insane. But we did have lots of company there. I met them when I first arrived and began digging a trench for our fuel cans. We put the cans in the ground to protect us from a self-made napalm attack that would have resulted from the cans being hit by one of the incoming mortar rounds that peppered the area every so often at night. The idea was that if hit, the blast and fireball would blow up, not sideways into people and materials. Fortunately they were never hit so we didn't have to find out how well the theory stood up to reality. Anyway, as I began digging, the sickly sweet and familiar stench of death wafted up from the hole. The shovel struck some roots which were somehow covered in cloth. As I tried to cut through the stubborn obstructions, I suddenly saw hair, and became aware that what I thought were roots were actually bones and clothing. The hole I'd dug was a grave. I began digging around the edges trying to find a clear area, but soon realized I was standing in the middle of a mass grave which had resulted from the carnage of a battle fought during the Tet Offensive a few months earlier. I got out and tried again nearby with the same result. I finally found an unoccupied patch and finished the now grisly job.
It turned out that the whole area was a site of several mass graves, exactly how many we never knew. The bodies tended to rise to the surface in the monsoon rains, and we were made aware of their presence again and again. A dog chewing on a rotted hand, a thighbone strung on the mess tent sign by a prankster attempting to make light of it and preserve his sanity, a skull unearthed and grinning on the trail to the perimeter, and of course the flies... always the flies... the ceaselessly swarming flies of a corrupted graveyard.
Nights on the bunkers when I was pulling my shift as the only one awake, was a surreal, lonely, and sometimes terrifying experience. When there was a break in the clouds and enough of a moon to see, the vegetation would become sinister, seemingly in motion, with strange sounds drifting through the dank, humid darkness. Along with the ever present fear of a real attack would come the eerie feeling that if I were to turn around, my frightened gaze would be met by the leering visage of a rotting skull and skeletal body clothed in the tattered fatigues of one of the residents upon whose grounds we were trespassing. It was strange times.
That kind of environment breeds disease, and I began feeling weak and sick one day. A concerned friend said I actually looked yellow and mentioned jaundice, so I went to see the medics and collapsed onto a cot in the sweltering heat of the hospital tent. I was in and out of it for about a week, losing quite a few pounds in the process. One night the survivors of a very bad ambush were helicoptered in and I was laid on the dirt floor to make room for the wounded. I remember drifting in and out of an agonizing world of screaming and crying men and shouts of rushing medics, while the roar of the choppers and shuddering of the tent in the dusty wind from the blades created a memory of being locked into a neverending nightmare that didn't even seem real the next day. But it was. I was very glad when I began feeling better and could finally leave that place.
One day we heard a burst of automatic fire coming from inside the perimeter. We found out that a newly arrived replacement had fired a burst from an M16 into his foot. He was flown back out before any of us had even met him. Maybe he was the smartest of us all.
His chiseled features and steely gaze were matched by his powerful physique. His eyes appeared to miss nothing as they traversed the terrain. The impression conveyed was one of immense strength and competence. He was a Westpoint graduate, a Captain in the United States Army, and he also happened to be an idiot. A very dangerous idiot.
He had been my company commander and in Vietnam for a very short time. At present my company was moving from the outskirts of a town named Kontum, located on a plateau in the Central Highlands, to a new firebase on the side of the mountains about eight miles away. Most of the move had been accomplished, but some assorted sheet metal and other items of possible use to the VC was still laying around and had to be moved up the mountain to our new area. Several of us had been chosen to drive our trucks back to the old area and do the job.
There was quite a bit of junk to load, and by late afternoon it was obvious to us that we would have to finish the job the next day if we were to make it back to the firebase with some daylight to spare. This was very important because Charlie owned the night, and to be on the road after dark was an open invitation to be ambushed and killed.
For some reason the Captain had chosen to oversee this job in person, and I mentioned to him that it was getting late, and we'd better be heading out soon. The infantry had dug in to secure the area, and there was no need to worry about the items that would be left. He told me it was none of my concern, and to get back to work. As the sun dropped lower, I figured he planned on staying the night and started constructing a ring of old sandbags to bed down in for the evening. He noticed this, and came over saying "Just what the hell do you think you're doing?" I said "I'm building my bed for the night." He replied "Where did you get the idea we were staying the night? As soon as these trucks are loaded, we're heading back up the mountain!" I couldn't believe it. He was serious! I tried to appeal to his sense of efficiency by suggesting that if I stayed until morning I could police the area and have some good light to make sure we'd gotten everything. He told me to shut up and get my ass in gear if I didn't want to end up in LBJ for refusing an order (LBJ stood for Long Binh Jail, a prison near Saigon where your time toward the mandatory year in Vietnam was suspended until your sentence was completed. This threat was fine motivation). That was when I realized what he was up to. He was out to live up to his fantasy of what a brave soldier did in war, and in his own mind he was going to be the epitome of that soldier. He'd be damned if he was going to let a few little slanty eyed gooks scare him. And what better way to show it than to drive alone through the dangerous night with no more protection than a tough expression, his superior intellect, and a 45 automatic. Now this was what it was all about for a real soldier! He wasn't a racist, he felt that he was immensely superior to everyone. I can't describe the chill that went through me at the realization of this insanity. He was enjoying my obvious fear, and so chose me to join him in his juvenile and irresponsible folly in order to savor it all the more. I'm sure that in his twisted mind, my fear proved his bravery. He made sure that the other trucks were loaded and left with just enough time to spare to make it back before dark while holding me back to watch me watching the sun go down.
As the sun dropped below the horizon he got into his jeep and said "Follow me!" in a strong and unwavering voice of command. We pulled out toward the road very slowly, and continued at probably 15 mph toward the town. I wondered what he was up to, but figured he'd speed it up once we got onto the road so we could get back to the relative safety of the firebase as soon as possible. It didn't happen. By now we'd reached the center of the pitch black town, and he was still driving at the same speed. Several bursts of automatic rifle fire suddenly erupted a short distance away to my left, and that was the end of this bullshit for me. I sped up and got right on his ass trying to get him to move faster. He wouldn't. Okee doke, I figured. Better to face his wrath later than to continue to tempt fate now. I ran him off the side of the road, hit the throttle, and began one of the most nerve wracking rides of my life. I drove like a bat out of hell with my lights off when the road was relatively straight, but had to use them now and then to see when it got curvy in places. With all the racket that poor truck was making, I don't know how much good my blackout would have done if someone had actually been waiting around to waste any moron stupid enough to be out at night, but it gave me a small sense of security anyway. As I drove, the road and vegetation formed a surreal nightmare of flowing, creeping shadows, and every one of them seemed to make my hair stand on end. There was a Special Forces firebase between me and home, and I was hoping they might let me stay the night and save me the drive up the mountain until daylight. The base was constructed in a circle, and the road went in one side of it and out the other. During the day, the gates were guarded, but open. Now they were closed tight and I was met by chain link fence, concertina wire, claymore mines, and bunkers bristling with barrels and full of Montagnard (the mountain people of Vietnam) troops. A Montagnard soldier appeared and began waving me off and yelling at me in what I suppose was his language for "Get the fuck out of here you stupid GI!". I began yelling back that I couldn't turn around, and needed to be let through the gates to get back to my base. A Green Beret sergeant walked up and yelled at me to get the hell out of there, he couldn't let me through. I said "Fine, lock me up for the night if you want to, just let me in until morning and I'll be out of your hair". After a few minutes of haggling, he said "Let the sonovabitch through, but make it quick!". I pulled through the base and continued on my way.
Finally I reached my firebase but still had to drive several hundred feet by our perimeter bunkers full of what I was hoping weren't trigger happy buddies. I reached the way in, and the wire was pulled aside for me to get inside. I was greeted by "What in the hell is wrong with you? You got a death wish or something?". I headed to my tent, downed about three warm beers, smoked a joint, and waited for my doom.
After about a half hour, a guy came in looking wide eyed and scared. He said "Flynn, the Captain wants to see you right now, and he looks ready to kill you! You'd better get over there quick!". I headed to the command tent figuring that I'd be leaving in the morning for LBJ. I was scared, but so enraged at what he had done to me that I really didn't care. I ducked through the flap and entered his lair.
He was sitting behind his desk talking to the first sergeant, and made a point of ignoring me for a minute or two. Then he slowly turned a seething gaze on me and just stared awhile, absolutely furious, but also trying to put the fear of God into me. It was somewhat successful, but I'm sure my anger was at least equal to his, so it came far from achieving the desired effect. He began a tirade about cowardice, insubordination, patriotism, and anything else that came to mind that lasted long enough to make me nauseous (I suppose the warm beer and weed didn't help). He then grabbed my rifle, inspected it, said it was filthy, and told me to get my ass out of his sight, clean it spotlessly, and be back in front of him damn quick. I cleaned my rifle and returned, having downed another beer or two in the process. He grabbed the rifle again, didn't even really look at it, and told me it was still filthy and to clean it again. This process went on for four or five times until I had become so enraged with what had happened to me, and fed up with the childish tantrum he was throwing, that when he told me to go clean it again I said "No sir, it's clean." His eyebrows rose in an incredulous face, and he said "WHAT DID YOU SAY, MISTER???". I repeated "No sir." He then began blasting me with threats ranging from bodily harm to jail, and finally wound down, telling me again to go clean my rifle. I said "No sir." and he just sat there looking amazed. After a moment he said "Are you DRUNK?". I said "Yes sir, I imagine I am." He then said "Get out of my sight!", and that was the last I ever heard of what had happened.
Sometimes in quiet moments I think of what happened that night. And then visions of all the dead, wounded, and mutilated bodies of the casualties of every war ever fought drift through my head. Visions of human beings and the unique mosaics that made up their lives. All of the precious and lost memories of good times, loved ones, and dreams of the future that existed inside every individual who was ever destroyed by war. I think of how much of that destruction was unnecessarily caused by people like the Captain. People guided by childish, self centered egos, wanting to be some kind of hero to themselves and the world, almost always at the expense of others. And when I think of that, I feel very sad.
"Ouch, damn it!" I thought, as the truck hit another deep pothole. Years of removing VC mines and filling the holes of the ones that worked had made the dirt roads bumpy beyond belief. My back and arms are killing me and the choking dust has caked around the goggles on my face and feels gritty and pasty in my mouth. I can't take one more bounce (but of course I'll take that and more because there's no way out). The roar and rattle and banging of my truck has long since numbed my ears to the outlandish racket around me. Driving long enough puts me into a kind of nightmarish trance. Common sense tells me to keep an eye on my surroundings and watch for patches of dirt which could be mines, but it's getting harder to do anything but hang on to the wheel and keep the damn truck on the road. The sides of the road are usually steep dirt walls dropping off into rice paddies and cane fields, so losing it for a second or two can spell real disaster, especially when the roads are slick with mud or a convoy coming the other way forces us over to the edge of the dropoff. Pulling over doesn't exist, and you don't "stop" in the middle of a fast moving convoy with trucks in front and rear and potential ambushes always possible. My God, how many more months will I be here? Will it ever end? I guess I'd better watch what I wish for.
"LET'S MOVE 'EM OUT!" was loudly relayed down the long line of trucks and tanks ready to begin the convoy from our base at LZ Baldy to firebase Ross, a little south of Da Nang. It was during the Tet offensive in February 1968. The Tet offensive was a very bad time for everyone in Vietnam. The communist forces launched the biggest offensive of the war and the whole country fell into total chaos for about a month. The effect on my unit was mainly mortar and rocket attacks many times a night, very hazardous convoy duty to supply a tiny firebase nearby, and the most ominous event to us, the halting of mail delivery for several weeks. The lack of mail in itself was a hardship, but for circumstances to be bad enough to halt something with as high a priority as mail, we knew that something horribly bad had to be happening everywhere. I'm certain that the folks back in "The World", as we called home, had a much better picture of the situation through the news than we who were actually there did. In movies and books, soldiers always seem to have a handle on the situation. In real life, I remember not knowing what was happening from day to day, and waking up totally disoriented in pitch blackness to the screaming of "INCOMING!" while trying to figure out where I was and where to go as I grabbed for my rifle and bandoleers of ammo. Many times we slept with our boots on for several days, as to keep trying to find them and put them on every time a mortar attack came in was just too time consuming and exhausting. I got to the point where I'd just roll off my cot and huddle in the sandbagged corner of my tent rather than run across an open area with mortar rounds exploding here and there to find "safety" in a bunker. That didn't seem so safe to me. Not to mention the terrible feeling of claustrophobia I felt when packed into a tiny sandbagged space in pitch darkness with a bunch of guys between me and the door who would pack in tighter and tighter each time the VC would walk the rounds in close. Anyway, as the convoy moved out, the tension increased, and once again I'd find myself thinking of how long it would be before I'd see home again if I ever did at all.
The fifteen mile or so round trip to Ross took from early morning to late afternoon. Out front of the convoy was a jeep, and in front of the jeep were guys on foot with sharp eyes and metal detectors. By the time we got to Ross they would have blown quite a few mines in place, and filled part of the bed of a truck with mines that they'd dug up. The landscape we drove through looked like the moon in places with the huge bomb craters saturating the area. Gunships constantly flew low and fast over us, startling, but reassuring us with their roaring presence. As my truck was mostly filled with high explosive mortar ammunition, grenades, and rifle and machine gun ammo, I knew that if I hit a mine, there was a good chance it wouldn't hurt. Nothing would ever hurt again. It was actually kind of comforting in a weird way.
Once they found a mine out front of a little house next to the road. Why anyone would be living in that nightmare place I couldn't imagine, but there they were, right next to my truck, a family of several women and children with one old man in their midst. A few of our guys were questioning them about the mine, and apparently they didn't like what they heard. They knocked the old man down and began beating him with rifle butts and kicking him while the women and children screamed and screamed with fear and anger, wanting to stop them but knowing they couldn't. It was very vicious and thorough, and he looked dead or close to it by the time they finally stopped. Then they lit the house on fire and walked away. As we moved out I looked back in the mirror. The family was just huddled by the old man's body and crying as they watched their home go up in flames. All that was left on our return trip was a little blackened and charred area with nobody there at all.
I walked up and sat down beside him like I'd known him for years. I felt sure he wouldn't mind. We looked at each other for a while and then sort of struck up a conversation. The reason I'd singled him out was because he scared me. For the past few days whenever I had to go down to the bunker line at night, passing by him was a bit unnerving. Maybe if we got to know each other a little better the fear would go away. I hoped so, because I'd always been afraid of people like him even though the fear seemed unfounded. Getting over those feelings would be well worth the effort. There were too many of his kind around to let my fear and prejudice rule me.
As we spent a little time together, I began to feel empathy for him. I knew that before my tour in Vietnam was over we might have a lot more in common than we did now. But I hoped not. His life was a story like my own. He'd known happiness and sadness, love and anger, fear and strength. He'd held a girl's hand at night and watched the moon and stars reflecting off the water, thinking of how beautiful life was going to be from now on. Felt all the things we all feel. He'd marveled at a beautiful sunset, and laughed at a silly joke. We were from different countries, but he'd felt alot like me in many ways.
As I sat there, his appearance began to be a bit of a burden. The wispy hair, and whiteness of his face. The hollows where his eyes had been, and bits of leather still stuck to the bone. The time he'd spent in a muddy mass grave before one of my buddies tripped over his slightly protruding skull and unearthed his rotted face hadn't done much for him. Still, I was glad I'd taken the time to have an imaginary conversation with him. He wasn't so scary any more. He was a person now. Just another guy like me who wanted to live his life the best he could. That was over for him now, but not for me. It made me want to do a little better. Be a little nicer, maybe smile a little more. After all, things could always be worse.
YOU were in Vietnam? I didn't know you'd been to Vietnam. You've never mentioned it before.
I guess it just never came up before.
It was pretty bad over there, huh?
It wasn't good, but it could have been a whole lot worse.
Were you at the front doing the actual fighting?
There really was no "front". I mostly drove a truck and filled sandbags.
Oh, so you weren't in actual combat. That's good. The guys who were really in combat came back pretty screwed up. That kind of stuff can really screw up your mind. You're lucky you got to drive a truck. I've got a friend who was up at the DMZ most of the time. He's really messed up over all that shit. All of his friends got killed while he was there. He was the only one left out of all the guys he went over there with. He still gets pretty bad dreams about it, his buddies dying in his arms and all, but he sure wasted a bunch of gooks to make up for it. Made 'em pay for it real good. Those gooks were really mean, cruel fuckers. You had to watch out for those sneaky bastards. They'd cut some guy's dicks off and stick them in their mouths while they were still alive. I've seen alot of books and movies about it, and stuff like that happened all the time.
Yeah, a lot of bad things came out of the war. There was some pretty good exaggeration about some of that stuff though. A lot of cruelty and horrible things definitely went on on both sides, but some of the stories you hear weren't very typical of everyday reality. And sometimes, exaggerated or not, that's all you do hear because of a vet's overwhelming desire to get things off his chest combined with the knowledge that so many people don't really want to hear what's important to him. They just want to feed their fantasies. It's a hard realization when you find that the painful baring of your soul is really just cheap entertainment. One of the reasons people don't talk about it much is because unless you babble stuff full of blood and guts, nobody seems to listen. The important things, the things that tear you apart and really matter to you, just aren't very interesting to most people. It's too uncomfortable for them. As they say, the first casualty of war is truth. And the truth fades as the "boring" things are left out.
Oh, I know some guys bullshit, but this guy I know doesn't lie. He really had it rough there.
I didn't mean your friend was a liar, I just meant that it's a good idea to have an open mind, but take everything with a grain of salt. And to try to listen to the underlying messages; that war isn't romance, glamour, and excitement, with music in the background and tough guys saying tough and humorous things at just the right time. That love and compassion for others is the true and final solution to every one of our problems. The sad fact is that unless you've been there yourself, it's sort of hard to imagine what "tough" can be. If a story isn't pure, distilled carnage, it sometimes doesn't make much of an impact on people who haven't had a similar experience, and who have been conditioned all their lives by books, television, and movies pushing different versions of "Kill 'em all and let God sort 'em out".
I know what you mean. Did you see Platoon? Man, that showed some of the really gory action that happened to the guys over there! Most Nam movies are crap, but that one showed what it was really like. I've read a lot of stories about it, and Platoon really showed some truth. A lot of stuff you see is like the old John Wayne hero junk. John Wayne was a really good actor, but his movies were made a long time ago. Nowadays movies show a lot more real stuff. The good ones do, anyway.
Well, I'm just glad to be home. And I'm glad your friend made it home too. Mostly I'm glad the war is pretty well over for most folks.
What? Oh yeah. Me too. Be glad you weren't in combat. You were lucky. Alot of guys like my friend are still real screwed up! Well, take it easy.
Yeah, you too.
This was written quite awhile ago. Since then I have found that most of the time, the pain of Vietnam is, if not gone, at least tolerable. Life today is good. A great part of that is due to a profound spiritual change, but a considerable amount can be attributed to the writing of the above. I don't know how it works, but putting things down on paper has proven to be an amazingly therapeutic activity for me. If you, like many of us, have memories that seem to eat away at all the good things in your life and keep you from enjoying the blessings that you may not even know you have, try writing about them. Then maybe you too will be able to finally seize your life back from the demons of the past and strive to walk in awareness of the grace of God.