Wars are seductive as women in the night. Past midnight in February of 1967 we stood, the platoon and I, on the flight line at El Toro Marine Air Station, gateway to Asia. On the tarmac big jets howled and moaned. The smell of burned jet fuel blew in the Pacific breeze. We felt the exhilaration of being part of something huge moving in the darkness, of going to the action, of leaving the mundane. The attraction of war verges on the lascivious. It gets into your blood.
And so we went. Young men always go. Always there is another war. Always there are reasons. In the past these were straightforward: lust, booty, excitement, empire, a way to escape the family yurt, sheer joyous combativeness, the king was bored. Not much has changed.
Long hours later we landed in the sweltering sauna of Danang with its gun emplacements and fwop-fwopping helo traffic and sun-baked Marines with slung rifles; 105s boomed in the distance. It was, in the vulgar but irreplaceable expression of the times, a mind-fuck. We weren’t back on the block combing our hair for Sally Sue and facing a career at the NAPA outlet. We were real soldiers, who couldn’t find Vietnam on a map, fighting VC who couldn’t find Vietnam on a map. We didn’t reflect on this. Marines fought. Somebody else decided who they fought.
Perspectives change. Later, for veterans who no longer had legs or eyes, who had lost their guts or become paras and quads, the splendor dimmed. I came home in a packed Medevac 141 with a guy slung above me sprouting tubes that led into bags. He died en route. Those who survived soon realized that in six months no one would care what they had gone through, yet they would spend the rest of their lives in the wheel chair. A colostomy bag, they found, was not a great conversation piece in a singles bar. For them, the war never went away.
Spend a year on a casualty ward. When the girlfriend of seventeen from Chattanooga finds that her Mikey is blind and doesn’t precisely have a face, her expression is something to see. Or not to see. You can become disposed to ask: Is this war for anything? Or is it just a war?
Mostly they are just wars. Vietnam was just a war. We lost, and nothing happened. You might be surprised how many in the Disabled American Veterans quietly hate those who sent them.* Yes, I will get angry mail, from those fiercest of warriors, the 103rd Combat Virgins Division, grrr, bow-wow, woof, telling that that I am a commie and a coward and wear lace underwear. I’m impressed in advance.
Later, as a reporter, I spent a year between Saigon and Phnom Penh, leaving both cities with their evacuations. The Asia I saw in the complex warren off Truong Minh Ky was not the Asia of the GIs.** It was complex, variegated, enduring. I liked the Vietnamese. I still do. I am glad that we killed only a million of them.
This you must never say. Wars are better if you don’t look too closely. Never, ever, think about what is actually happening.
The Americans believed, or said they believed, that we were battling the evil of communism to save the Vietnamese, who wouldn’t even help. To this day former GIs hate the Viets for not being enthusiastic about the war, which in fact they weren’t. They wanted the war to go away so they could grow rice.
The Right thunders and the Left squeaks over the motives of the war, each bleeding cataracts of virtue. I remember the succinct analysis of a Vietnamese girlfriend I lived with: “At night, VC steal our rice. In morning, Marines kill us for give rice VC.”
They were ambivalent about having a half million gringos running around their country and blowing things up, such as themselves. The GIs never understood. They didn’t know that when an artillery round killed a villager’s wife, all the young men picked up rifles.
After the GIs left Saigon I returned to Southeast Asia as a reporter for Army Times. For a while I lived in a rooftop apartment on Jawaharlal Nehru Street in Phnom Penh with Steve Hedder, a young stringer for Time, and his Khmer wife Davi. With us were the twins, pretty, playful girls of sixteen perhaps who spoke reasonable English. They were the people with soft hands that Pol Pot would kill.
At night the smell of charcoal and flower trees drifted from neighboring roofs and people murmured in Khmer. Reporters–mostly stringers–lay on the roofs in a fog of gin and Nembutal and listened to the rockets whistle in from the swamps. When the KR took over, Steve and Davi got out. The twins didn’t. I don’t know how they died.
I will be told I have a bad attitude. You bet I do.
Years later I went back on a magazine assignment, and saw Toul Sleng.*** Once a high school in Phnom Penh, it was used by the KR as a place of torture. It had become a museum. On the walls were photos of those who died there. I couldn’t remember the lone Caucasian’s name, but I had seem him around town. A friend of mine who went back found the picture of his girlfriend.
Another time I returned to Vietnam, again on assignment. In Saigon the Continental Shelf was glassed in and air-conditioned, not necessarily an improvement. For two weeks I worked my way upcountry from Saigon to Vung Tau, Nha Trang, Hue, to Danang, near where I had been stationed. Marble Mountain had become a pleasant tourist stop with shops selling stone carvings.
Further north, Hanoi bustled with shops and the insane but invisibly ordered traffic of Asia. My pretty little governmentally-supplied guide asked whether I wanted to see the Ho Chi Minh museum. I said I’d rather have my teeth pulled. Oh, she said, apparently relieved, then let’s just look at the city. We did. Nice place. I tried to remember what the war had been about.
As I say, it gets into you blood. For a couple of decades I worked as a military reporter. I liked the travel, the troops, the airplanes and ships. Eventually it wore thin. Over and over, in some place like remote Olancho province in Honduras, or Cuando Cubango in Angola, or this dusty clearing or that dusty clearing, the press would chopper out to be shown The Great Victory.
In the jungle would be three or four bedraggled bodies of teenagers fighting a shabby war for some dismal Marxist cause they couldn’t spell, and a trove of captured weapons-couple of AKs, the stray M-16, maybe a FN/FAL or Galil. We were told it was progress. Some great cause was being served. Maybe it was. I got tired of seeing it.
Plus ca change, the more it doesn’t.