Vietnam War, part 3

This blog is the third instalment of the Vietnam chapter of my unpublished novel on post-war American history (the first and second instalments went out last week and the week before that). 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. In the first two extracts, Joe has told Tig what it was like to fight a jungle war in Vietnam. It is beginning to dawn on Tig that Joe is in fact Jack. Now ‘Joe’ continues…  

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‘More it went on, more you felt like a god. Out there in the wilds, gun at the ready, power of life and death in your hands, no one to stop you. Same time, more it went on, more you knew you were an animal. When you know you’re an animal, when you’re treated like an animal, every other human being becomes an animal. More you feel like an animal, more you need to prove you’re a god. That’s how it went. Round and round in circles.’

‘Why didn’t the command stop it?’

‘Don’t ask me. Don’t know why they didn’t stop it. Can have a few guesses, though. Don’t think they knew a lot of what went on. That was because they didn’t want to know. Couldn’t answer the questions any more than we could.

‘Other part of it was the pressure to get the body count up, keep it up. General Westmoreland thought he was fighting a war of attrition, for some reason. When you’re hunkered down in HQ with your top brass, hundreds of miles from any fighting, how can you tell if a war of attrition’s working? By the body count. Can’t measure any ground gained. Can’t number any towns captured. Can’t conduct opinion polls of the villagers to see how they’re feeling about things. You count the bodies instead. Want to know how a colonel’s performing, or a captain, or anyone in command of a bunch of soldiers? Count up how many he’s lost of his own men; compare it with how many he’s killed of the enemy. That becomes the reckoning. Ratio of your dead to enemy dead. That’s how you’re held accountable. Decides if you get promoted or don’t get promoted.

‘Nothing much you can do about your own dead. If they get killed by an act of stupidity, they still get killed. No disguising the fact. When a guy doesn’t come back from an operation, he doesn’t come back. Sometimes, if you’re not sure, you can say he got taken prisoner. Usually you know which way it’s gone. You know if the guy’s got parents at home, or a wife and kids, or a sweetheart, so you don’t go round saying he’s a prisoner when you know he’s dead.

‘Other side of the equation you could do something about. If you wanted to get the ratio up, that’s all there was to do. One thing you did was lie about it. If you’d killed 10, say you’d killed 20. Second thing was to kill more people. That was the sure-fire way of getting the ratio up. Tell them you’d wiped out a whole village ’cause it was an enemy village. How the fuck could anyone tell?

‘We had the command telling us we needed to make friends of the villagers, treat them good, make them see how much better off they were under freedom, get them on our side against the infiltrators. Same time they were saying we had to get the body count up, so go kill a load more of them. Those were the two objectives of the war, far as I could see. Go figure. So you ended up doing it. Many reasons why you did it. All I can say, at the time we were doing it, not one of us thought we had a choice in the matter.

‘Somewhere along this road, you first kill someone. Don’t mean you’re part of a unit in a situation where people get killed. You personally kill someone. Line him up in your sights. Get the hairline over head or heart. Pull the trigger. He drops. That kill’s down to you. Nobody else did that.

‘Happens to Jack out in the fields. We know there’s a VC patrol nearby. We’re lying in the grasses at the edge of a paddy, guns trained on the causeway that runs across it. A gook comes across the causeway. Can’t see us. Doesn’t smell us. Jack waits till the gook is close enough he can’t miss, then he pulls. Like a target at a fairground.

‘It changes you. You’re a different person after that. Jack’s first kill comes just before Christmas. He has a few days’ leave in Bangkok. Army lays on Christmas dinner for him with an American family living there.

‘So he goes out to their house in the suburbs. Everyone sweet and kind to him, treating him with courtesy and dignity. Two young daughters, excited to meet a real live GI, out there fighting for freedom on their behalf. Presents piled under the tree. A present for Jack. Candles lit on the dining table. Turkey cooking in the oven.’

Joe stopped. Shoulders heaved. Head went to hands, rubbed away tears. Tig moved his chair up so it was next to Joe’s, right beside him, not sure now who he was talking to.

‘Oh man,’ said Joe.

‘Tell me,’ said Tig quietly. ‘What did Jack feel then?’

‘Jack felt…’ Joe stopped again. ‘Jack felt… Jack feels unclean. Jack feels like a piece of fucking shit. Jack feels he has no business in this house with these good people. Jack feels he’s defiling their house by being there. Jack feels they’ve invited a killer to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ with them.’ He stopped again.

‘So what did Jack do then?’

‘Jack can’t stay. Jack can’t be there, not the man he’s become. Jack waits till he’s left alone for a moment, then he creeps out the back door.’

There was another long pause, broken by Tig. ‘So that was the story of Jack, was it? That’s why Joe thinks Jack’s a piece of shit?’

‘No,’ said Joe. ‘That’s not the story of Jack. That’s the story of every fucking Joe out there in the front line. Happened to Jack too, but happened to everybody. Something else happened to Jack.’

‘I’d like to hear it,’ said Tig.

‘No you wouldn’t. You wouldn’t like to hear it at all. Can’t tell you that.’

‘Yes you can. Tell me like you told me the rest of it. Joe can do that. Joe can say what else happened to Jack.’

Long pause.

‘It was a situation,’ said Joe. ‘One of those situations that come up. You’d think someone would have considered it, would have an answer for it, but they didn’t.’

Pause.

‘What sort of situation was that?’

‘You are out there in the jungle, like I say. On patrol. Looking for the VC. Sometimes you see them and shoot at them, and maybe some get killed and maybe they don’t. Happens regularly. I told you that.’

Silence.

‘Yes, you did. You told me that. Was there something else in that situation was a problem?’

‘What are we meant to do with the prisoner, sir?’

‘I don’t know. What are you meant to do with him?’

‘What are we meant to do with the prisoner? Answer me that, sir. What are we meant to do with the fucking prisoner?’

‘I don’t know. What are your choices?’

‘There are no fucking choices. That’s what I’m saying.’

‘You can’t turn him loose, I guess.’

‘Course we can’t. Can’t risk leaving him nearby to attack us. Might be other VC around to join him. Would be crazy.’

‘You can’t take him with you?’

‘No fucking way. We need to move quickly, sir. Quickly and quietly. Need to give every ounce of attention to what we’re doing. What if the guy calls out, gives away where we are?’

‘I can see that. Aren’t there camps to take him to?’

‘Nowhere near. The camps are hundreds of miles away. You know that, sir. And no one’s sending out a chopper to airlift one gook. Advertising our position while they’re about it.’

‘Can you leave one of your guys behind with him?’

‘You’re fucking joking, sir. Sitting target, out there on his own. And who can say when we’ll be back this way again? Maybe never.’ Tig said nothing. ‘Got any more great ideas, sir? Something else we can do that might have escaped our attention?’ Tig remained silent. ‘Reckon you’ve got it, man. There was only ever one choice.’

‘So you did it?’ Joe was silent this time. ‘What were your orders in that situation?’

‘“All prisoners of war are to be treated in accordance with the accepted conventions of warfare.” Some shit like that.’

‘What was that supposed to mean?’

‘That was supposed to mean no one could pin it on the army. That was supposed to mean they’d thought about it too and couldn’t come up with a better answer. That was supposed to mean they were passing the buck to a kid out in the jungle. That was supposed to mean they could deny it all afterwards. That was supposed to mean they could go home later and mouth off about the moral corruption of America’s youth.’

Long silence.

‘What was Jack’s part in this?’

‘Somebody had to do it, Tig. Somebody needed to do it.’

‘Why did Jack need to do it?’

‘Jack didn’t want to do it. Nobody wanted to do it. First time it came up, everybody knew it needed doing, but nobody wanted to do it.’

Pause.

‘So how was the matter decided?’

‘Drew lots for it.’

Pause.

‘Jack drew the short straw?’

Pause.

‘Jack drew the short straw.’

Silence.

‘What happened the next time?’

‘Next time, people figured that Jack had done it once, so maybe he should do it again. Best to keep just one pair of hands bloody. Rest could all stay clean.’

‘Is that what happened?’

Pause.

‘That’s what happened.’

‘And after that?’

Long silence.

‘Jack was official executioner now, wasn’t he? Jack was hit man for the unit. Jack was the guy to take care of things for everybody.’

‘How many times did that happen?’

‘Dozens.’

Jack crawled off his chair, laid himself down on the floor, curled up like a foetus. Tig lay down beside him, put his arm round him.

‘Tell me again, Joe’ said Tig. ‘What did Jack do?’

Pause.

‘Jack murdered prisoners. In cold blood.’

‘One more time, buddy. What did you do, Jack? Tell me what you did, Jack.’

Long silence.

‘I. Murdered. Prisoners. In. Cold. Blood.’

‘Let me tell you something, old buddy. You’re still Jack to me. I don’t care what you done, that’s the way it is. You’ll always be Jack to me, no matter what. And we’re going to get Jack back again, you and me together.’

Jack didn’t hear him. Jack was asleep.

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To repeat what I wrote at the start of the first extract, this chapter is based entirely on a conversation I had with a Vietnam veteran, and on his written monograph on the war. No detail of it is invented or imagined.