Not until my late twenties did I stop wearing the much-worn combat boots and ragged fatigue jacket with my 9th Infantry Division insignia and buck sergeant’s stripes, some eight or nine years after I had served as a 19- and 20-year-old foot soldier in the Mekong Delta.
More than the clothes and boots that were worn then beyond repair, I stopped identifying first and foremost—in my own mind, at least—as a Vietnam veteran, an identity that through the 1970s and into the 1980s mostly cut the wrong way.
It wasn’t as though I ever wore my wartime experiences on my sleeve—beyond actually wearing those insignias on my shirtsleeves. I rarely brought up the topic in conversation nor, if others asked, could I easily articulate a clear position on what I had seen and done and how I felt about it.
Certainly, I marched in no parades nor—except for a brush with the Vietnam Veterans Against the War—did I join any veterans group.
I have said over the years that for some time after I came home I only felt comfortable around other combat veterans, but that’s an exaggeration. It’s true that for a couple years right after I mustered out and returned to Columbia University, I hung out with a fellow student named Carl Hillstrom, who had served with the Marines in Vietnam at the same time I was there.
And no doubt our war experiences—which very few others on that Upper Westside campus shared—put us together initially. But what kept us together—aside from the fact that Carl drank almost as much as I did—was that we gave each other space.
Carl told me somewhere along the line that he had been a recon marine, serving out of base camps in the North whose names I have long forgotten, until his father died in a snowmobiling accident and the Marines sent him home as a sole surviving son.
And I must have told him I had been a machine gunner, squad leader, and acting platoon sergeant in the South for a half year until I had been wounded again and sent back to “The World,” as we called it.
But nothing more. No swapping of war stories. No saluting fallen comrades in arms. No sharing of photographs. Just welcome silence.
The key elements present at Trieu Ai recur over and over again in war crimes files and the recollections of veterans. Angry troops primed to lash out, often following losses within the unit; civilians trapped in their path; and officers in the field issuing ambiguous or illegal orders to young men conditioned to obey—that was the basic recipe for many of the mass killings carried out by army soldiers and marines over the years. – Nick Turse, Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, page 39.
I first tried to read Nick Turse’s new book, Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, on a plane flight east to Baltimore a month ago for a media conference and family visit, but my vision had deteriorated so badly over the past two years that I couldn’t struggle through more than a few pages even with the help of a magnifying glass.
Now, though, perhaps ironically thanks to cataract surgery at the West Los Angeles Veterans Hospital, I can see—out of my right eye, at least—as good as I could when I was a kid and could still hit a Little League curveball. Kill Anything That Moves was first on my reading list.
Turse’s heartrending account draws on extensive research on largely overlooked or even suppressed Pentagon war crimes reports, coupled with current-day interviews with Vietnam veterans and reporters who covered the war, detailing the widespread murders and rapes and civilian abuse involving every major American combat unit in Vietnam—a litany of horrors much more extensive than the single horrific My Lai Massacre many Americans of my generation know all too well.
How do I square Turse’s report with my own experiences?
I ended up in Vietnam in small measure in honor of my father’s service in World War II, where he had commanded a company of combat engineers with the 104th Timberwolf Infantry Division in Holland, Belgium, and into Germany until he was wounded by shrapnel from an 88-millimeter shell in precisely the same spot on his right calf where I was to be wounded by shrapnel from a Chicom grenade 28 years later.
In much larger measure, I found myself waist deep in the proverbial Big Muddy, an M-60 machine gun heavy in my hands, as one particular drastic attempt in a long series of failed efforts to deal with my increasingly overwhelming drinking problem—without actually, you know, dealing with my drinking.
After being a read-two-books-a-week, study-all-the-time, straight-A-student nerd all through high school, I found myself doing poorly at the Ivy League college that had given me a full-ride scholarship, in part because at 17 I wasn’t emotionally ready for the challenge and in large measure because the weekend drinking I had begun before my senior year in high school had blossomed quickly into at least several nights a week of bouncing-off-dormitory-walls, waking-up-god-knows-where blackout drunkenness, which played out in missed classes, confused shame, and deep discouragement.
I was lost and humiliated.
Which led me one frigid winter night back home in Minnesota to stand on a bridge overlooking the Mississippi—the bridge I thought the poet John Berryman had jumped off, though his was one bridge north—a suicide note written for my three younger brothers hidden in my desk drawer at home, one leg making a faltering effort to get over the railing as the ice on the river thundered and crackled in the below-zero cold far, far below.
And the next morning I went down to the draft board and volunteered.
Huong was dragged to the side of the house. A marine held his hand over her mouth; others pinned her arms and legs to the ground. They tore off her pants, ripped open her shirt, and groped her. Then the gang rape began. First one marine. Then another. Five in all. Huong’s sobs elicited more screams of protest from her husband, so the marines began beating him again, after which a burst of gunfire silenced him. Her mother-in-law’s sobs ended after another staccato burst, and her sister-in-law’s after a third. Soon Huong could no longer hear the children. Then came a crack and a blinding flash, followed by searing pain that brought her to the ground. Page 130
I served as part of Alpha Company, 3rd Battalion, 39th Brigade, 9th Infantry Division in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta from October 1968 through March 1969, when I was wounded for the second time, after which I spent several months moving from one hospital to the next across the Pacific, recuperating from what I immediately understood to be a “million-dollar wound”—bad enough to get me out of combat, not bad enough to do lasting damage.
I have always been of several minds about the Vietnam War and especially my service in it.
On the one hand, I was proud of the way I comported myself in battle, cooler than most under fire, controlled enough not to participate in any of the horrors—the rapes and murders and beatings—Turse’s book chronicles, nor even allowing them to go on around me.
I found—or at least I saw later—that I was good at pushing my emotions down and attending to the business at hand, which probably was no blessing for my psyche, but did stand me and others around me in good stead in battle.
On the other hand, even from my low vantage as a infantry grunt, I saw that there was very little honor to be had with America’s destruction of Vietnam, that we were hardly bringing democracy or liberty or anything remotely like it to the generally impoverished rice farmers of the Mekong Delta, that we were simply an invading army imposing its will on a people who mostly wanted us to be gone, that we—soldiers and civilians alike—had been sold a lie that was playing out in the lives of the dispossessed of America and Vietnam.
A number of soldiers became “double veterans,” as the GIs referred to men who raped and then murdered women. As the writers Michael Bilton and Kevin Sim reports, “any women [at My Lai] were raped and sodomized, mutilated, and had their vaginas ripped open with knives or bayonets. One woman was killed when the muzzle of a rifle barrel was inserted into their vagina and the trigger was pulled. In one sexual assault, three men held a teenager girl to the ground and violated her. Afterward, the girl was shot in the head and killed. Page 170
Afterwards, after I had gotten out of the Army, made a second faltering stab at suicide and picked up my drinking career with added gusto, I marched in anti-war rallies, in New York and Minneapolis, then in particular wearing my fatigue jacket with the sergeant’s stripes and the combat infantryman’s badge for all to see, complete with a “fuck you” attitude you were wise not to challenge.
But my heart wasn’t in it, not all the way.
As I looked around at my fellow antiwar marchers, they were too much like me—white, middle-class, with some college under their belts, resources at their disposal, opportunities readily at hand, visions of productive and joyful lives laid out in front of them.
The men—boys, really—beside me in combat came from a different part of town.
If my fellow soldiers in Alpha Company were white, they were surely working class or just plain poor, from small towns and farmsteads in the Heartland, coming out of broken homes and trouble with the law, mostly with far shorter horizons than my big city protestor friends.
But more likely they were black or brown skinned. Of my infantry company’s three platoons—each platoon having between 15 and 20 soldiers—one was all Latinos, many speaking little English, led by fully bilingual Mexican-American and Puerto Rican sergeants; another was all black, every last soldier. The third platoon, mine, was by equal measure black, white, and Latino, with a couple Native Americans and a Tongan thrown in for flavor.
In the years since, as I slowly made peace with my war memories and overcame the alcoholism that put me in the Mekong Delta—this Saint Patrick’s Day will mark 32 years of sobriety—I have wondered why I did not witness the kind of horrors laid out in Turse’s book.
I saw no rapes. I saw no villages burned to the ground. I saw no villagers lined up and shot as apparently happened all across the country. I heard rumors, to be sure, not so much when I was “in country,” as we called it, but later in halting conversations with other veterans as the decades passed and our memories faded in AA meeting halls and homeless shelters I would visit to give the next guy a hand.
The heaviest thing on my heart came during a firefight with my platoon and an equal number of Vietcong in a village out near the Plain of Reeds.
As we received fire, I had called in mortars, walking the rounds across the enemy’s firing positions, after which we charged toward the village.
At one point, I jumped down into a ditch to continue firing. There beside me, dead in the ditch, were two young girls, not yet teenagers, dead at least possibly from the mortars I had called in.
Perhaps it was the racial makeup of my particular infantry company that made us less likely to rain havoc upon other dispossessed peoples that prevented the war crimes Turse describes.
More likely it was luck of the draw that the terror and rage of combat did not spill over around me into the depraved acts of cruelty Kill Everything That Moves describes in the scant few months I was there.
I have thought, at least at times, that my life has been better for having served in combat in Vietnam, that what I learned about myself eventually made me a better person, clearer about what to believe and what not to believe, surer about my own moral compass.
But what if the luck of the draw had gone the other way? What if I had witnessed, stood by and done nothing, took part—lord god almighty—in the kind of things Turse describes?
How could my life have gone on?
Editor, LA Progressive
Tuesday, 5 March 2013