“War … it paid well and liberated children from the pernicious influence of their parents.” — Joseph Heller, “Catch-22”
I’ve written elsewhere that I lost my innocence during the war in Viet Nam. Besides being a well-worn cliché, it’s also not true.
What’s true is that in Viet Nam I learned that I was not innocent.
Everything I did during the war – whether brave, courageous, foolish, mean, cruel, thoughtless, or violent – was already part of me. War simply eroded the layer of civilization, or civilized restraint, that covers all of us. That layer was deeper, thicker or heavier on some of us than others. But the war burned it off all of us eventually, and exposed our true selves. Which is to say, our selves in all their complexity. Maybe that’s why so many men don’t want to talk about it. Because of what they saw in themselves. What they realized they were capable of doing.
I thought war would be different. Dirty, sure, and dangerous. It was certainly that. I thought it would be exciting too, in a romantic way. Not romantic like love, but perhaps that’s not a bad analogy. Love is blind, and so is war. Blind, and blinding.
Real, actual war, is not like the ones depicted in the films of my youth: romanticized wars with no blood, lots of action, and heroic, lingering deaths. Maybe men don’t want to talk about it because not only was it a terrifying and starkly cruel experience, it also revealed things about each of us that we would like to have not known; things which, once seen, will never be forgotten.
If you’re telling someone who’s never experienced war – a civilian – about your time in Viet Nam all those years ago, what exactly are you going to say? Are you going to tell your friend about the crappy C-Rations, and the insects and leeches? About how the water buffalo hated us because of the way we smelled? Will you talk about the beauty of the countryside, and the booby traps that were here and there? What about that time that a friend tripped one, and died right there in front of you?
Maybe you’ll tell stories about stand down. It was basically a three day party on the beach in the division base camp, with free beer, hot food, some marijuana if you could get it, and for further diversion, the painfully earnest, previously-unheard-of Australian and Filipino bands that toured around entertaining the troops. You could recall how you felt when the three days were over and you had to go back to work. Enough fun – back to death and destruction. You could tell your friend that it wasn’t good to think about how this could have been your last beer, your last party, the last time you’d see a good-looking woman. Because if you thought about that, it might jinx you, make you somehow less careful, and then you might end up like your friend, laying on the ground, blood rushing out of a hole in your side, knowing that the medevac wouldn’t get there in time to save you.
Instead of all that, you could tell your civilian friend about the Vietnamese peasants in the countryside, how funny they were in their little conical hats, the half-naked kids running around, everybody jabbering in that incomprehensible talk of theirs. There was that kid who tried to steal a grenade from your pack while you were digging a foxhole. Yeah, that was funny – the way you chased the little fucker, yelling about what you’d do if you caught up with him. You didn’t, of course, because he was too fast. But it was ok, because he didn’t get the grenade, which meant one less that would end up connected to a trip wire on some path out there.
You could talk about how terrified you were at times. You pissed in your pants once, when your platoon was ambushed in broad daylight. Most of the time, though, your life was a kind of lonely, wary boredom. People don’t expect that about war. That it can be boring, or lonely, but it can. Tell your civilian friend about that.
If your friend is a man, and he’s still listening, you could talk about how you went months over there without getting laid. The last time had been when you were home on leave before going to Viet Nam. Even so, when that dink guy brought a woman out to where your company was one night (she was a girl, really, and not too bad looking) you anguished over doing it with her, afraid of disease, but finally did do it, after bargaining the guy down to three dollars from five. You were the one with a gun after all, and besides that, she was a dink and you’d never had to pay for it before, so you sure as hell weren’t going to start now. Not for five bucks, when you could get it for three. Maybe you should’ve told him you’d only give him two dollars.
Their villages were a sight. You could talk about that. What a mess. Dirt floors, and animals in the house with them. It was pathetic, really. How could people live like that? Hauling water from a well, and cooking over an open fire on the dirt floor? They weren’t really people, though; not civilized people like we were. And those houses weren’t really houses. They were just bamboo shacks: hooches, we called them. Bamboo hooches at that. They were easy to set on fire, especially the roof, which was palm thatch. During the dry season, the thatch was as dry as a fallen leaf in autumn. And man, when you lit one of those roofs, the whole thing went up in, like, two minutes. That’s what you did sometimes, if a sniper had shot at your platoon from the village, or just somewhere near it. You wanted to show the dinks who was stronger, or maybe you just did it because you were pissed off and tired and angry, and watching one of those little villages burn was kind of fun; exciting in a different way than getting shot at was exciting.
Ok, here’s something funny you can talk about: R&R in Bangkok. Getting shit faced in some party bar. They were all a bunch of gook-looking people there too, but at least they didn’t want to kill you, because that would’ve been bad for business. There were plenty of ladies available too. Not as cheap as that girl out in the field, but at least you could do it in a bed. Then, later, you’d go to another bar with other GIs and get drunker, and make stupid drunken jokes about Bang Cock, and quietly hope you hadn’t picked up any nasty diseases. Although if you had, it might get you out of the field for a few days, so there was that.
Oh man, and the rain in Viet Nam during monsoon season! It was like a wall of water sometimes. Your company walked right through the flooded rice paddies during the monsoons because the paddy dikes were obvious places to put booby traps. There was that time Wilson dropped right out of sight in a corner of one of the flooded paddies. Who knew the dinks sometimes dug wells in the corners of those things? The M-60 Wilson was carrying weighed him down, but you and some others guys got him out. Him and the machine gun. He lost an ammo belt in there, but no one was going to dive down into that cold, muddy water to look for it. We’d just ask our Uncle Sam to send us some more. He was very accommodating in that way.
Talking about things you didn’t want to go down into, there were the tunnels. You can tell your friend how lucky you were to be as tall as you are, because it was the shorter guys who always got picked to crawl down into those things, hoping no one was home, hoping it wasn’t booby trapped. God damned booby traps. You thought it would just be easier to throw a couple of hand grenades down there and be done with it, but the lifers had this thing about checking them out. Not that they checked them out themselves, of course.
You could tell stories about watching air strikes. Talk about exciting. Jets screaming down, dropping bombs or maybe napalm. The way things blew up, trees flying in the air, all the dust and smoke, and villages exploding into billows of greasy, apocalyptic flames. It wasn’t as good as an orgasm, but it was pretty good. One time, after the jets had returned to Chu Lai, leaving huge holes in the ground that would fill with water when it rained, some old mama-san came squawking up with a young girl who’d been burned by the napalm. It was grotesque, what had happened to her arms and chest. They called a medevac and sent the girl and mama-san back to a hospital in Chu Lai – after they’d been searched for hand grenades and weapons. You could never trust those dinks.
There are so many things you can remember about the war. Too many to forget. Maybe it’s too complicated to explain to someone who never had to live it. Maybe it’s better to just not talk about it. Keep all that horror and adrenaline-fueled ecstasy shoved down deep inside, where it can’t hurt anyone, especially you.
Yeah. That’s a good idea. Just don’t talk about it.