Vietnam War, part 2

This blog is the second instalment of the Vietnam chapter of my unpublished novel on post-war American history (the first instalment – Vietnam, part 1 – went out last week). It is 2008 and 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. In the first extract, Joe painted a picture to Tig of what it was like to fight a jungle war in Vietnam. Now he continues…  

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‘I was 22 when we went out there. Most were younger. We weren’t equipped to deal with a situation like that. Nothing in life prepared you for it. Some were enlisted men, thinking they’d help their country out for a bit. Some draftees, like us. All sorts. All sorts you could imagine. Country took advantage of the opportunity to ship out its undesirables. If you were dealing drugs or shooting up the streets, and you came up before the judge, you got the choice of jail or Vietnam. Give them the choice now, they’d take jail every time. Back then Vietnam looked the best option, poor suckers.

‘Government lowered the standards for entry, to get a few more retards from Hicksville out there, keep a few more smart college kids out of harm’s way. Keep their parents from writing to newspapers and making a nuisance of themselves. Black soldiers said there was a secret sequence of digits in everyone’s national security number, so the government knew what colour you were and could offload more black guys out there. Don’t know if it was true or not. Fact is the government and the military weren’t too fussed with putting the finest fighting force they could find out there. Had a lot to do with the whole proceedings, if you ask me.

‘You were all in it together, whoever you were. Depended on the nineteen guys around you, wherever they came from. They depended on you. Found out who you could trust pretty damned quick. Seemed appropriate to me. Country was founded on the basis it was a level field and everyone had an equal chance. Then we sort of lost sight of all that. Maybe the founding fathers would have approved of Vietnam, in that respect. We were all on the same shit-heap, that’s for sure.

‘That’s what we found ourselves caught up in out there. Fighting a daily battle with the jungle and everything in it. Fighting a daily battle with the enemy, melting out of the jungle to attack you, melting back in again. All that for day after day, week after week, month after month. No fucking respite. Made you into a complete zombie, holed up in a parallel universe of insanity. Had to forget about reality. Had to accept the place you were in was the only available reality, no matter how fucked-up and crazy it was. That’s the thing no one can understand unless they were there.

‘Wasn’t like any other war. Maybe like bits of Korea; not much of it. Maybe the same as other wars if you were in some elite professional unit, some kind of trained special forces. We weren’t trained that way. We were ordinary Joes. No beaches to land on. No towns to liberate. No ground to gain. No ground to hold. No smiling people waving flags at you and saying thanks for liberating us. Like any other war, we were meant to kill the enemy. Unlike any other war, we didn’t know who the enemy was half the time; couldn’t see him the other half.

‘Many ways, being out in the jungle was the easier bit. Least out there, if you saw anybody, they’d probably be the VC. You’d shoot at them, and they’d shoot at you, and you both knew what you were doing. Wasn’t like that in the villages. It was the villages were the problem.

‘We hated the villages. Dreaded having to go into the villages. Had to go in them all the time. Orders were clear. You had to secure those villages. Secure them for freedom. Secure them for the good old democratic government down in Saigon. Way you did that was go in the village, find out who were enemy and take care of them. When you’d done that, orders said you’d now secured the village, so you said to the folks that were left, there you go, see you around, and off you’d go to the next place. All neat and nice. All typed out in black letters on white paper. Couldn’t be clearer.

‘Bastards. What fucking asshole thought that one up? What mother-fucking jerk believed that might work? Fucking imbeciles, the whole fucking lot of them. Bastards. Bastards. Bastards.’

Joe hurled himself from his chair, snatched a pile of CDs and flung them across the room.

‘Bastards. Fucking bastards.’

‘It’s OK,’ said Tig. ‘It’s OK. Take it easy.’ He took Joe by the arm, led him back to the chair, sat him down. ‘You’re doing fine, Joe. Tell me what you found in the villages.’

‘No men in the villages. No young men. Not in the daytime, which was when you were mostly there. They were out in the paddies with the buffalo, or in the jungle with a gun. So old men in the villages. Old men and women and children. All dressed the same. All looking near enough the same. Standing in front of their mud huts, staring at us staring at them, staring at our guns.

‘Could’ve been anyone. Could’ve been a friendly village, no danger to anyone. Could’ve been a hostile village, all out to get you. Could’ve been a mixture of the two. Most of them were. They all smiled at you. Kids could be dangerous as adults; women dangerous as men. An old woman might pass your unit’s movements to the VC. A 10-year-old kid might put bombs in booby-traps. No way of knowing. Might have been doing it of their own free will. Might have been terrorised into doing it. Didn’t know that either.

‘Orders said you had to know. Orders said you had to work out who was who. Orders said you had to eliminate your enemies and support your friends. Orders didn’t say how the fuck you were supposed to do that. It was impossible. Couldn’t be done.’

‘So what happened?’

‘What you’d expect. First up, you try and do it by the book. You react proper, like you’ve been trained to do. Assume folk are innocent unless you know they’re not. You do that a few times and make a few mistakes, like you would. People you’ve taken to be innocent fire on you, or ambush you. Buddies get hurt or killed. So you learn from your mistakes.

‘In time, every village becomes a hostile village. You don’t wait around to find out who your friends are. Safer option is to assume everyone is the enemy. Safer option is to shoot anyone who makes a move towards you. Safer option is to torch the hut rather than go in it. Safer option is to blow the whole village apart. Might be disgusting to you, but you’re alive. By the time you’ve done it a few times, it’s not so disgusting anymore. It’s normal.

‘If you want to secure a village, you embed guys in there. Only way it works. We didn’t do that. Couldn’t do it. We didn’t speak the language, so no point leaving us there. Should’ve been the south Vietnamese army we left, but we couldn’t trust them. Didn’t know which side they were on. We were putting our lives on the line for those fucking bastards, but didn’t know which side they were on. So we had to leave the villages. Soon as we’d gone, it all went back the way it was. Unless the village wasn’t there anymore.

‘That’s the sort of shit that went down. Used to be better in the early days, so I’m told. Longer the war went on, worse it got. Each new bunch of draftees picked up the attitude from their unit, like we did. Attitude they picked up got worse from each bunch to the next. What do you suppose those people thought of us? What did those kids feel when we shot their mothers? What did those mothers feel when we shot their kids? What did they feel when we burnt down their villages? Only freedom they wanted was the freedom to till their fields and raise their families in peace. They didn’t care what label that freedom had; didn’t care who provided it. Sure as hell wasn’t us.

‘Nobody gave a fuck about that. Reports had to be filed. Military bureaucracy and politicians needed to know everything was hunky-dory. They didn’t enquire too closely into it. So you exaggerated the fire you were under when you arrived. Exaggerated the resistance you met when you got there. Exaggerated the number of known enemy you found. Rubber stamps went on reports and everyone was happy. The carnage was justified. The carnage was always justified, unless you were William Calley. Don’t ask me how many our unit killed. Don’t know. Don’t ask me how many were enemy and how many weren’t. Don’t know that either. Couldn’t tell them apart. That was the main thing. Couldn’t tell them apart, so it was easier to make them all the enemy.

‘Doesn’t take too long for all this to feel normal. More you start losing respect for yourself, more you stop feeling it towards anybody else. One day, our unit passed this old Vietnamese guy, walking along a track minding his own business. One of the guys pushed him into the ditch. No reason for it. No provocation. Just did it. That’s the sort of thing it starts out with. There were guys used to carry little cards round with them. “Compliments of the Strike Force widow makers”, they read. Used to leave them in the mouths of their victims to make the wives feel better.

‘Other guys used to cut off the ears or noses of dead VC and keep them as trophies. Some sent them home to their girlfriends. What guy in his right mind thinks his girlfriend’s going to want a human nose in the mail? Is it going to make her love him more? Shows how crazy you get. Once you start down that road, you don’t stop. Farmers were shot where they worked in the fields. Target practice; no other reason. Guys didn’t give a fuck. Once heard of a unit that stoned a 3-year-old kid to death for the hell of it. Most of the people our unit killed were women and children.’