The Vietnam War has been on my mind recently. One reason is the Ken Burns documentary on Vietnam, recently repeated on BBC4; another is the admirable film The Post. A few years ago I wrote a novel, never published, that explored my contradictory attitudes towards America and its recent history. One chapter dealt in detail with the Vietnam War. This blog and the next two will serialise that chapter.
I wanted to forget the politics, and any attempt at objectivity, and convey what it was like to be in Vietnam: the raw subjective experience of a young GI in the jungle. A GI who, in other circumstances, could have been me. On a trip to America in 2010, I managed to track down a veteran, now a small-town lawyer, who had been in the thick of the jungle fighting. He invited me to visit him. As soon as I met him, I understood the meaning of the ‘thousand-yard stare’.
The chapter is based entirely on our conversation and on his monograph on the war: no detail of it is imagined or invented.
The novel is set in 2008. The protagonist, Tig, has gone looking for his old childhood friend, Jack, whom he hasn’t seen since Jack left for Vietnam in 1968. The chapter is set near Santa Fé in New Mexico, where Tig has tracked down a screwed-up vet called Joe, who might know what happened to Jack.
* * * *
Sometime in the middle of the night, he didn’t know exactly when, Tig awoke. Someone was in his room. He sensed it. He couldn’t hear it, because all he could hear were pounding waves and the Beach Boys singing Heroes and Villains. He hadn’t got round to turning the sound effects off. He hadn’t got round to undressing either, found himself lying in his clothes, surfing the crests of the waves.
‘It’s Joe. Let’s talk.’
‘No. My place.’
Tig followed Joe through to his room. It was a large room. All it contained were two armchairs, some crates of beer, a sound system, a pile of CDs and what seemed like several thousand books. They couldn’t all be about Vietnam, Tig thought. Maybe they could. He took one chair. Joe had already taken the other. They sat like that for a minute or two, looking warily at each other, neither one speaking.
‘Are you about to apologise?’
‘I don’t reckon so. Someone calls my best buddy a mother-fucking piece of shit. I hit them. Nothing to apologise for there.’
‘No point in having this conversation,’ said Joe. ‘Unless you can take the truth.’
‘I can take it,’ said Tig. ‘If you can tell it.’
‘I am telling it,’ said Joe.
‘Then why did you call Jack a piece of shit?’
‘Because he was.’
‘Not the Jack I knew.’
‘You didn’t know Jack then. That’s what he was, it turned out.’
‘How did that come about?’
‘Jack killed people,’ said Joe. ‘Jack was a fucking murderer.’
‘People kill in every war. That’s what happens in war.’
‘Not the way Jack did. You’re not supposed to do it the way Jack did it.’
‘Knew him well, did you?’ asked Tig. ‘How well did you know him?’
‘Real well,’ said Joe. ‘Side by side the whole time out in Nam. Know everything about him. His whole story. Even heard about you. Nothing I don’t know about Jack.’
‘OK. Suppose you tell me what Jack did?’
‘I’ll try. Not much use, but I’ll try. No way you’ll understand.’
‘I’ll just listen then.’
‘First thing about it was we didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into. Thought time was on our side. Couldn’t see there were bullets in the hourglass. Didn’t have a fucking clue about that. We were back home, wherever that was, having a good time with our buddies. The war was on. We thought that was all right. Didn’t think about it much. Too busy working and having a good time. The President was paid to do the thinking. If the President said we had to get out there and fight the Reds, reckoned he was probably right.
‘Knew we might get drafted, didn’t think we would until we did, so didn’t worry about that either. Didn’t worry too much when we did get drafted. Reckoned we’d help Uncle Sam out for a while, get to see a bit of the world, come home again. It was only a year. That would pass quick enough. Sure there might be some danger. Not much maybe, and not too often. Didn’t enter our heads we weren’t going to lick those guys. Reckoned it was the Vietcong must be in the danger zone. Reckoned it was the VC were in the shit.
‘All we knew about war we got from movies. You were in this big army, one of thousands, all these people telling you what to do, making decisions for you. Sometimes there’d be a battle, danger for a while. Wouldn’t last long. Then you’d be back behind the lines, drinking beer with your buddies, picking up girls. Turned out that was some other war. Sure as hell wasn’t this one.
‘First big shock was discovering it wasn’t one bit like that. Not for us. Was for plenty of others, near enough; not for us. Don’t recall how many we’d sent out to Nam by the time the whole fucking circus ended. Hundreds of thousands. Fact is, out of each ten that went, only one got to fight the war. Rest were in Saigon, in camps somewhere out of harm’s way, waiting for the next big push that hardly ever came. Talk to any of those guys and they’ll tell you the war was a cinch. They can’t understand why other people make a fuss about it. No big deal for them. They didn’t fight the fucking war. We did that.
‘No fucking let-up. No respite from beginning to end. Not from the day you were sent into the jungle until day 365. That’s a small exaggeration. Seven days’ respite, there were. Four days in Bangkok at Christmas. Three days in Taipei some other time. Rest of the time it was like total, constant pressure. Fucking remorseless. Could’ve got yourself killed at any minute of any hour of any day.
‘Can you imagine that? Can you imagine that amount of stress for that amount of time without respite? Nobody can live that way for a year. Messes with your mind. None of us had a proper night’s sleep the whole time. If you think that was bad, you were out in the fucking jungle. Out in the jungle, or the paddy-fields, or those little old-timey villages. Nowhere near civilisation, that’s for sure. Nowhere near home, not our home anyway. Home for the villagers. Home for the VC. That was their land. They knew its ways. Knew from birth how you survived in that landscape, made it work for you. We didn’t. Had to work it out from nothing.
‘Place was home to a lot else besides the enemy. Jeez, you should have seen the insects and stuff out there. Leeches were the worst. Place was swarming with them. Crawled all over you, dining out on your blood. Never any shortage of blood. Blood from blisters, from sores, from scratches. Never any short rations for the leeches. One guy had six of them up his asshole one time, hanging out like he had piles.
‘Then there were the snakes. Slithering in the paddy fields, hanging from the trees, creeping into your tent at night. Some harmless as a baby; others that would leave you dead inside a minute. Didn’t know which was which. Weren’t fucking biologists. There was the “fuck-you” lizard. Honest to God, there was this lizard used to make a noise that went “fuck-you, fuck-you”. We got plenty of lizards in this garden here. Crawling over the boulders and sunning themselves. Sometimes I go up to them and say “fuck you, fuck you”. Reckon it’s pay-back time.
‘You were wet most all of the time, your legs anyhow. When it rained, that was something. Plenty else to keep you wet. Your own sweat for one thing. The paddy fields. Spent a lot of time wading calf deep through those. Pretty little rice fields when you looked at them. Thing is, these people had no sanitation. When they needed to take a dump, they took it out in the paddies. Animals did the same. The paddies were huge fucking cesspits. Enemy would anchor bamboo spikes there, sharpened to a needle, just below the waterline. Didn’t need to poison them. Sewage did that. Jack got a spike in his leg one day. Blew up like a balloon. The Doc gave him penicillin and on he went. Didn’t stop for stuff like that. You couldn’t. No one to evacuate you for treatment unless it was real bad. Used your gun as a crutch and got on with it.
‘I’m trying to paint a picture. Trying to give you the psychology of the whole thing. Cause if you don’t get the psychology, you don’t get anything. You’d fly into a combat zone by chopper. First time you’d look out from the chopper and say, hey, don’t that look beautiful. All that virgin jungle down there, nice and calm and peaceful. Ain’t that real beautiful. I’ll have a piece of that. No beauty when you were in it. Things were rotten down there, one seething mass of decay. Place ate into you, sucked you into its putrefaction. Ate into your clothes. Ate into your body. Ate into your mind. Ate into your heart. Before too long it ate into your soul.
‘Reckon there were tens of thousands of us out there in the jungle. Never knew that. You weren’t an army, not as anyone would understand it. In units of ten, twenty, thirty at most. No one else for miles around. That unit was your army for how long the operation lasted. Then the choppers would come in, lift you up, drop you down again in some other piece of jungle, for some other operation. So it went on. While it went on, it was that twenty of you, doing everything, making all the decisions. No generals giving you orders. No senior officers saying “that gook’s a friend” or “that gook’s an enemy”. Had to work it out for yourself, when you didn’t have the first fucking clue what you were doing or how you were supposed to do it.’