Once upon a time there was a war, and I was in it. It seems about as far away now as the Civil War, but there it was--The 1960’s--and among things like topless bathing suits, integration and space programs there was an increasingly gnawing ache in the side of the American People called Vietnam.
Looking back with the 20/20 vision of hindsight we know now what a terrible mistake it was but in the early part of the decade, the patriotic buzz was that the Commies had to be stopped or the next thing you knew, they’d be storming the beaches of California, making us stand in lines, being mean to people and generally making life just awful. Sounds kind of funny, now, but a whole lot of us thought it was gospel back then .
Besides being ultranationalist, our country had this incredibly racist view that the rest of the world really, really should be just like us and that the Vietnamese were dumb little gooks who would roll right over and do things how we wanted once they were cowed by our military might-- the mightiest military the world had ever known, supposedly.
Unfortunately, what we overlooked was that the Vietnamese had maintained their own identity since around the time of Christ and that Vietnam had been a center of culture and commerce during the days when my ancestors were raping and plundering their way through the Crusades in the name of God. ( I come from THE most warlike tribe in history, by the way-- the British, by way of America..) In two millennium the Vietnamese had withstood invasion from some major cultures (Kampucheans, Chinese and French to name a few.) If they hadn’t defeated the invaders right away, they’d made themselves into such a major pain in the butt that sooner or later, the invaders would decide to go pick on someone easier to oppress. (Sound familiar?) The Viets would then go back to doing what they always did--growing rice traditionally and inefficiently..(It’s all right there in the history books, folks, if our national leaders had ever cared to look.)
Now, having been raised on Bonanza, John Wayne and the American notion that we’d won WWII while the world stood back and held our coats, I figured that we’d more or less just go over there, punch them all out, break a few chairs and tables over their heads and basically get them sorted out in time for the closing credits, just like on TV. I was, like, SO dumb as my son would say.
At age 17, youthfully chafing at restrictions and anxious to get in and mix it up before it was over, I enlisted for the paratroops, primarily to one-up my old man, who’d commanded a mortar detachment back in “The Big One.” He only shook his head sadly and kissed me off, probably wishing that I’d been born a girl (not the only time, either).
Let me tell you, one finds out right away the Army is nothing like they portray it in TV and movies. Forgetting the rather gauche attire momentarily, one finds oneself at the mercy of the most dysfunctional individuals outside of institutions with bars on the windows. Things you’ve prided yourself on up to now--your individuality and sense of justice, say-- are all wrong, terribly wrong, and you now have virtually no rights whatsoever, other than the right to do whatever you’re told and to keep your mouth shut. Awful people with bad breath scream vile things into your face while you stand helplessly rigid at attention, wishing you’d gone to Europe instead. This process is rather remarkable in that it turns you into their kind of guy in a short period of time--8 or 9 weeks. You wonder if you’ll ever be completely human again and the answer is: “Probably not.”
War is primarily a Guy Thing, figuring most guys never really mature mentally beyond the age of 11. In many ways, the Army is really The Scout Camp From Hell. After they think they’ve taught you enough not to blow your own head off (not necessarily true) they let you play with the most lethal hardware known to man. Guys generally just eat it up, self included.
I won’t dwell on paratroop training, other than to say it was more of the same. (Did the Army have any school where they weren’t awful to you?) Dysfunctional trailer trash being mean to you and incredibly hard physical training--they wash out 3 out of 4 who start-- but in the end you walk away with the notion that you are something else. Jumping out of airplanes is THE epitome of macho and you can readily tell the guys who do it by the swagger.
I was sent to Panama after jump school, being only 17 at the time (They wouldn’t send you to Vietnam until you were 18.) Everybody else in the class went West. I didn’t care for this, being anxious to be a hero and gain the respect of my country (HAR! Cue the ironic music!) but it probably saved my life. My battalion spent most of the time on maneuvers in the Panama jungle so that when I did get to Vietnam, the jungle was like a home country hunt--not like the poor guys coming out of Ft Dix, NJ or Fort Carson, CO. The day I turned 18, I volunteered for the Nam.
I’ll fast forward over my leave (6 weeks, mostly spent dropping acid in Haight-Ashbury and Berkeley--my hometown.) By this time I’d smartened up enough to realize that I was probably in way over my head but I still wanted to see it. Going through Fort Lewis, I arrived in Vietnam in April 1967.
After a few days of acclimatization we find our boy up front, scared but game, clutching his rifle and trying to figure out what’s happening.
I’m now going to tell you the most well kept secret about real war--it is mostly BORING. (For one thing, there’s no musical sound track.) What grunts mostly do is humping (marching) and cleaning weapons, staring at bushes, humping, cleaning weapons, reading C-ration labels, humping, cleaning weapons, lying to each other about their former lives, humping, cleaning weapons, standing guard, humping and (you guessed it) cleaning weapons. I may have left out a few things but I didn’t say humping and cleaning weapons enough.
Someone once said that war is 98% boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror. He had his eye right on the ball there but he left out how uncomfortable it is. In the 101st Airborne, I slept right on the ground every night, rain or shine, amid the creepycrawlies, for 6 months straight ( A counselor used to tell me I always say that but, well, it’s true.) All that crap about hot meals and nights back in the barracks was just so much bull. Our -operations lasted from 3 to 6 weeks, with a few days of stand down in “forward rear” areas in between. I could count the “hot meals” I had in the field on two hands and we sometimes threw them away and ate C’s anyway, they were that bad. Any barracks I saw the first 6 months were someone else’s. We got clean clothes about once a month whether we needed them or not. We took “showers” by filling 5 gallon cans with water and dumping them over ourselves. I never got downtown, to a PX or had a day off.
Actual combat has been done to death in books and movies so I’ll just say I found it scary and confusing, life and death conflicts with people to whom I’d never been formally introduced, mostly couldn’t even see! Actual combat –shooting it out, as opposed to just being shelled or rocketed (a plenty frequent occurrence)-- probably averaged 2-3 hours a week with occasional periods up to a week, but usually a day or less.
Figuring out what was happening and what to do was hard at best and impossible at worst., (A good rule of thumb: shoot at whoever’s shooting at you!) Here’s some examples: You’re walking flank patrol alongside a company column, 200 yards out to the side. Firing breaks out back at the company but you can’t see what they’re firing at. Looking ahead towards a small village you see 3 figures in mixed olive drab and black pajamas running down the paddies towards the ville. They’re carrying something--What?? Hoes? Rifles? You can’t see with the glaring sun on the water (you’re also close to exhaustion from lack of sleep, diarrhea and 110 degree heat.).What do you do? What? What? THINK FAST, DUMMY, YOUR LIFE’S ON THE LINE!
Well, while you’re trying to figure it out, just before they run into the ville two of them spin around and unload their AK47’s at you.. The guy behind you drops, gutshot and screaming and now what do you do? Charge at them across 100 yards of absolutely flat, knee deep paddy? Stop and tend your friend while hostile peasants shoot at you with automatic weapons? Bring up the Iron Pig ( machine gun) and smoke in about 900 waist-high warning shots? Call in the artillery?
It’s obviously an unfriendly ville. Or IS it?
So the CO calls in artillery and flattens the ville. Later you find out it was the only “friendly” ville around, the VC were from two valleys over and they wanted you to flatten it and so you did, baby killer.
All right, its a week later (you’re still out in the field and not a bit happier) and the same thing happens--The hot sun, the firing, the black PJs only now the figures are running at you and you can see the rifles. What do you do now? You’ll probably burn them, thinking Got you this time, you #@$%&*’s!-- only now its the ville headmen, who’re leaders of the Popular Defense Forces and they were running out to help you and you shot them, war hero. What’s the matter, isn’t your penis big enough, you have to shoot friendly peasants defending their homes?
(I’ve actually been asked that! By a member of the “nurturing” sex! Nurture THIS!, eh. It’s big enough, thank you.)
All right, its three days later and you’re on patrol, going through a supposedly friendly ville. You stop by a well to fill your canteens. It seems OK but the villagers are eyeing you warily, so you give them some C-Rations and the medic starts checking the kids. Your buddy, not wanting to crap in someone’s dooryard, walks off down a paddy dike and BOOM--a Bouncing Betty jumps up and shreds him from chest to knees. The medic runs to help him but you know, watching him die even as you call for Medevac, screaming with that high pitched squeal that haunts your dreams even now, that Jesus Christ Himself could not save him. And looking back towards the ville, there’s not a soul in sight and you realize with shock and hatred that everygoddambody in that ville knew where that mine was. Or DID they? Or did the VC tell them that if they told, they’d come back and cut the kids’ heads off when we left? And now what do you do? All the choices were bad-----and probably wrong.
Sure doesn’t take long before this stuff gets real old. And so do you.
My last weeks in the 1/327, 101st Airborne were the worst. We spent weeks trying to clean out an endless bunker complex. west of Chu Lai. We’d clean out an area, move to the next and there they’d be, back where we’d started. It rained most of the time. We had to stand 50% watch all night (every other man awake, alternately, but who could sleep from all the shelling.) We had pulled up on a hill for resupply (Oh Boy!--more ammo!) and to get a break from the stink of bodies.
An infantry platoon is supposed to have about 40 guys in it, but I never saw more than a couple dozen in one and right then we were down to 7. That’s right, 7! Think what that does for your morale. I had just turned 19 and I was the ranking leader--and I was starting to lose it. I knew I was dead--I could see it right in front of me all the time. My pals were starting to cover for me on watch because I was hearing things on the radio no one else was hearing.
I was in that state of exhaustion where you don’t want to talk to anyone because you’re not sure if they’re really there or not and you don’t care anyway. They brought out a bunch of new guys and a new platoon leader and I could tell by the way they looked at me that they thought I was over the edge. I didn’t want to get to know them or even talk to them because I knew they’d soon be dead or horribly maimed--I could see it..
I remember so clearly what happened--it had stopped raining briefly and the sun was making vapor rise from the ground. I was sitting in a hole, shivering and cursing, trying to open a can of breakfast with a bayonet. All of a sudden, right in front of me, a figure appeared out of the steam with shiny captain’s bars on his hat. I know now it was an angel.
“Are you Worth?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said, “What the &*#$% do you want?” (You’re not supposed to talk to officers that way but what were they going to do? Put me in the infantry and send me to Vietnam?--I mean, put me in jail, please--I could use the vacation.)
“Well, they got your name here to go into the LRRPs [Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol--heavily armed spies.] You’re supposed to come with me.”( I found out later this was how I “volunteered”)
Now I didn’t really know just what a LRRP was-- something to do with reconnaissance. You were always hearing about LRRP teams getting wiped out. I figured if they were getting people from the infantry, it was probably suicide (all the good things were taken before they got that far forward) but I knew if I stayed where I was that I was dead for sure. And I looked up at that clean, shiny, freshly shaved captain and I thought, by God, before I die, I want to be clean again. I want a real shower. I want to eat a real meal off a table with a real fork and knife, sleep in a bed, crap on a toilet and wear clean clothes .But I think most of all, right at that moment, I just wanted to stop shaking.
I stood up and gave away everything I had to my squad except my .45 which I stuck in my pocket. I followed the captain to the helicopter landing pad , and flew away to the LRRP School in Nha Trang.
The kid who took my place as squad leader was killed a few days later.
Note: from EVERYMAN STROLLS THROUGH HELL by James Worth.