Essence of Evil
The South Vietnamese Interrogator

     If we thought we were going home, we thought wrong. The choppers veered off and dropped us at LZ Lucky Strike, a high mountain outpost that hadn't been used for months.

     "Charlie’s done been here," Shoot said, dropping down into an old foxhole behind a flat rock where he could rest his M-60. "They done dug through garbage holes'n spread old C-rations cans everywhere."

     "Why'd they do that?" Georgia asked. "Couldn't it have been animals?"

     "It were animals all right," Shoot growled, "Gook animals. Ah can smell 'em, the little bastards. Pro'bly be in our hip pockets come noon."

      "They're hungry, and GIs throw away a lot of 'gourmet' C-rations," I said, tongue in cheek.

     Moline wrinkled his brow. "Isn't that an oxymoron, deluxe gourmet...and C-rats?"

     "Yeah, chit...deluxe gourmet, chit."

     Muley came up grinning with his buck teeth flashing, not really looking at us, his eyes still sweeping the clearing, his M-16 still held at the ready. Made me think of what Ottel had said about him being able to eat corn through a picket fence. I looked away grinning, but only slightly.

     "Fredericks, Gutierrez, Moline...garbage detail," Muley grinned, circling his hand above his head. "Dig a hole, put this shit inter the hole, bury it, then move the hole down the hill, ASAP, young troops. Let's see a little in-GI-nuity frum ma girls." After he said it, he paused for a moment, almost as if expecting us to laugh at his little turn of phrase...but when nobody did, he walked away.

     After an hour of fun and games with the garbage detail, we thought we'd get a little R and R lounging around the LZ...but again we thought wrong. Muley's grinning face was back again as soon as we dropped our raggedy bodies beside our foxhole. "Saddle up girls...we goin' for a walk in the park." Suddenly Muley's grinning with that look like he could shuck corn through a picket fence wasn't so funny.

     "Not goin' nowhere, Sarge." Shoot took a stick of gum out of its wrapper and tossed it into the air downhill, all eyes on the floating paper as it was caught in the rising hot air, the currents carrying it above our heads, till it vanished over the tree tops. And I wondered where he got it. "I've had it. I'll do your ratty garbage details, I'll sit in your ratty foxholes, and wait for the ratty Vietcong, but you can ship my ratty black ass to Leavenworth befo' I goin' out there walkin’ in the park no mo'."

     "But Capt'n Trenery says..."

     "Damn Captain Trenery!"

     "The Army's not gonna like..."

     "The Army can screw itself! I'm not going. Nobuddy can make me go if'n I don't wanna," he said disdainfully, as if challenging Sergeant Mulenburg.

     Muley looked around for support, but the men were setting down and looking the other way. "I sympathize with you men...ah reckon 'at I surely do. You need time off. Hell’s bells, we all need time off, but the Capt'n told me he wants ever'one with one thats swingin' in this 'ere platoon, to line it out for patrol, no exceptions!"

     Shoot made a point of settling down further in the hole. "Except this...ah ain't goin! So Captain Tren'ry better get anothah swinging butt on line his-own-self, if'n he wants the park patrolled. Ah done seen 'nough dying, and done enough killin' for one week, and ah don't aim to do no mo' fer a spell."

     Mulenburg looked us each over one at a time with a mixture of frustration and pleading on his face. Then he turned and was gone. Thirty minutes later he returned with Lieutenant Brycon Shandtling, Trenery's new executive officer.

      "Private Schotfaust, you will stand to and come with me," Shandtling said. "When you damned soldiers ever gonna learn you can't screw the Army? Soldiers at war simply cannot be allowed to choose when they will or will not fight. The Army's your mother. You don't screw your mother."

     A few minutes later a helicopter flew in. Then an hour later Shoot came back to the foxhole and started picking up his gear, quieter than I'd ever seen him. Several of us tried asking him questions about what was going on, but he was awfully subdued, and didn't say a word. Shoot had this blank look in his eyes, and ignored us. Talking to him was like talking to the jungle. Neither one of them talked back.

     We didn't go patrolling that day, and later that day Muley filled in the blanks. A grizzled looking re-enlistment NCO had flown in special when Captain Trenery called, and told headquarters about the problem. The NCO told Shoot he had three choices. One, rejoin his damn platoon and go on the damned patrol. Two, face a damned court martial and spend ten years hard time in damned Leavenworth. Or three, "I can make you a damn good deal where you're reassigned off the line, back to the rear fixing trucks, shining helicopters, or sweeping out the NCO Club. All you gotta do is re-enlist for three years, and the war's over for you...promise you that, son." According to Muley, he spoke smooth and gentle, almost in a monotone, in what appeared to be an attempt to look fatherly, "and there will be all the beer and whiskey you want, boy."

     Shoot hated the war, hated the nightmares, hated the Army, and hated the re-enlistment NCO with the platitudinous clichés about the Army being your friend, ridicule in his nasal tone. Like he told me before, he didn't so much mind the killing...fact is, he kind of liked that part of the war. It was the thought of being killed and dying in some damned jungle he didn't much care for. And he had an awful fear of something even worse, getting his legs blown off, and then going back on the Hank, a dirty homeless man who sold pencils on the block. Hank had both of his legs gone, blown off in World War II, and scooted around on a board with roller-skate wheels. Shoot was haunted by Hank. He'd rather die than end up like Hank. He no longer could imagine the world 15,000 miles across the moat, so he signed his life away and followed the re-enlistment NCO like a whipped puppy dog with his tail between his legs. Shoot was quieter than I'd ever seen him, awful resigned, or dejected or something.

     The re-enlistment NCO had come around to each foxhole after that, an oily tongued man with a clipboard and shiny, wavy black hair. His eyes were beady like a fox, darting, looking for cracks that he could expose, leap into and open up. He had a slick, syrupy harangue, and the message, "The deals open-ended, boys. It's your call. Your rich uncle needs you."

     When the NCO went down the line, a big Texan in the next foxhole whispered, "He used to come around our unit all the time, especially after a big battle when everyone was down and would do anything to get away from the fighting. Boys got to calling him, 'Oil Can,' because he sure enough can grease the way."

     "I may be the best friend you've ever had, men." Oil Can was back. "I care for you, I really do," he intoned. "I just want to make the Army a comfortable home for you. I want it to give you what you like." What he must have thought passed for a smile was painted on his trembling lips. "I'm your mother in this man's Army,, better than your mother, 'cause she can't give you half the deal I can. I'm better than your best girl, boys!" He flashed an ear-to-ear smile, spreading his arms like he wanted to gather us in under his protecting wings like a clutch of baby chickens. "Now, because I like you, I can take you away from all this... And I always deliver what I promise. I'm all of them, mother, father, brother, your best girl, all of them rolled into one. I only want the best for you. Talk to me, boys, tell me what you need...tell me where it hurts. Let me help. All I want to do is take care of my boys; so what's it going to take to get you to extend your service? Sign here and you're off the's simple as that! Trust me boys," he uttered in a suave monotone. "I wouldn't steer you wrong. Me an' your Uncle Sammy's tight, so I can give you all you need. I can make this the best day of your life...but of course, if you'd rather stay here..."

     A couple guys followed him; heads low like their insides had been eaten out. But most of them stayed. When the beat of the helicopter raised its dust, I held on to my camouflage soft hat, and knew I'd seen the last of Shoot.

     When the chopper was gone, an eerie silence reigned like a curtain call black-out between two scenes. I wondered at it. It was surreal. It was too quiet. My introspection turned outward into the nearby jungle surrounding us...closing in on us, as I carefully positioned myself in the foxhole, and set my M-16 on it bulwarks. We all knew Chuck was out there...waiting, just waiting to tighten the noose around our necks. He shadowed our every move, always just out of sight, waiting for a mistake he could capitalize on, waiting for the killing advantage. I knew he was there, because even the jungle creatures were quiet. It was so quiet my senses were heightened. I could smell the musty smell of the rotting vegetation. I memorized every subtle angle of tree and vine, bush and leaf, so that next time my vision passed that way I'd notice if anything was out of place. Still, I looked intensely at the shadows, imagining something in them moving, closer, closer.

     I once again thought of how I'd gotten to Nam. I knew I was gung-ho naïve when I came over to Nam, raised by church and family to feel God himself inspired our leaders, and was behind their every decision. I truly felt the "call" was because He wanted me there to help defend democracy...and freedom, to restore the liberties of "A poor impoverished nation that had come to us for help, overrun by a bully government who would take away their rights of self determination." Balderdash! "Balderdash!" I silently yelled. I rightly don't know what I believed anymore, but I don't believe that...and I'm sure as hell not naïve anymore! Balderdash! I don't believe any of the crap the politicians are handing out any more. Nam was a rude awakening! I now felt people had used God's name in vain to perpetuate this war...and to make people at home feel their children giving their lives, did not do so in vain.

     It hadn't been long, I, not long at all, before I took off the rose-colored glasses that gave we brave young men a Pollyanna view of life and war, and saw this war for what it was. Something was wrong! I thought about it a lot, wondering just when the change had come. I figured it must have come right after I looked the enemy in the eyes for the first time, maybe when I killed my first man, or when I saw up close and personal the horrors and wall-to-wall fears of terrible war and killing that raked my very humanity. Maybe it was that first night alone and scared in that foxhole in the Le Hong Fong Forest, that I too became what I never thought I'd be...disillusioned, jaded to presidential statements. How can that be? It was almost sacrilegious! I was soon aware of a great weariness I carried like an extra 20 pound weight in my pack, the fear governing every single moment in Nam, recognizing the lies and innuendoes raining down on us from up the chain of command. It was a hard load to bear. It wasn't long until I noticed the South Vietnamese government we defended was rife with corruption and vice, many of their generals using America's might and presence there only to line their own pocketbooks, and/or fulfill their thirst for power. Ho Chi Minh was a better leader than most of the South Vietnamese politicos and officers...even the South Vietnamese Army was filled with Vietcong infiltrators, according to intelligence reports. The Vietcong and NVA were preoccupied with killing us, and our own leadership was obsessed with pandering the bosses, getting bigger and better body counts in order that they might look better, and get promotions. We poor sad-sack GI's were just in the middle of a no-win situation, fighting for our very lives in Charlie’s backyard, on Charlie’s terms, just trying to survive long enough to get back to "the world."

     It was too quiet! Even the breeze sat on the land, hot and humid...stifling! There was no relief was maddening. In the unsettled calm, I became too edgy, too hypersensitive, attuned to every little sound. Only there was no sound. Everything stopped; everyone looked out at the jungle, looking in. Something was going to happen...something imminent! I could feel it! Everybody could feel it, the tension so thick you almost had the desire to wipe it away so you could see better. It made me irritable, jumpy, and restless. I wanted to move, but dared not. I put on my helmet, and caressed my M-16, going over it quickly to reassure myself it was clean and in good working order...still I wondered, and worried about it.

     War is more than just a glory-filled pipe dream, I thought. Now, the only thing most of us fought for was our brothers-in-arms beside us, just watching each other's backs till we could return to the land of the giant PX. Most no longer fought for the glory...or the longer for our country, and patriotism and freedom...just for our brothers! For combat is something like you could never imagine in your worst nightmare, no matter how much training you get. There is a wall-to-wall fear that you can die at any moment, and that fear builds and builds over the months, just knowing in your gut, every second of every day, that there are men out there planning your death...preoccupied with it...with every fiber of their being dedicated to it. Nothing can prepare you for that. Nothing can prepare you for looking death in the eye, or seeing the smatterings of life deteriorate into a mushy mass before your smoking gun...wondering if that man deserved to die by horrible death coming at your hands. Nothing can prepare you for that. It wears on you. It changes you in ways no surgeon can fix.

     War and the killing gets buried deep in your soul, the way I see it. A soldier can't look at the big picture, or he'll never make it. War is simply enduring what cannot be endured...putting one foot after the other. Any other way and you go crazy...but then, who's to say I'm not crazy now? Ya gotta be a little bit crazy, in a way, to make it through the madness.

     I felt something crawling inside my helmet, but dared not take it off. My thoughts fluttered back and forth between intense, all-pervading, riveting boredom, and heart palpitating panic. Anxiety just the calm side of panic took over. Insecurities gnawed at me, souring my insides. I feel doom hanging over me, opaque, black. I feel it like a moving tide traveling slowly from the back of my head forward...gloom! I feel it's just a matter of time before I buy it. Were we ready? Was everything covered? How would I react if part of my body was blown off? I visualized looking at my leg, white bone sticking out...bleeding. I felt nauseous.

     Damn that hallucination! I felt the sweat coming down from my helmet, stinging my eyes...blurring them. I wondered if the force out there was greater than the force in here. Is that a sniper in that tree? He's moving to get a bead on me. No, it’s just a shadow. Don't be stupid! Don't go seeing things...shooting at shadows...stupid hallucination!

     But I wonder...what would happen to me if I die? What would happen to my mother? God! If I died...she would die. Don't be stupid. Quit thinking like that, it does no good. What will be...will damned well be! My eyelids grew heavy. I wanted to sleep...but I couldn't sleep. I strained with everything I had to keep them open. I started twitching my finger...tapping my toes in the bottom of the foxhole...chewing my tongue. The heat beating down on me was too much. The fight within myself was too hard. I pinched myself until it hurt; got to keep awake. But like it did every day...hours passed...and nothing. Nothing happened. Maybe in the morning. Maybe tonight...

     I don't know why I let it get to me this time. I thought I was past that. I thought I was tougher. You had to be tough. You had to get the fears under control, shoved down in the back of your rucksack along with the hellish memories. Now it's starting to get dark. I hate this time most...the twilight when the shadows move. Shadows play tricks on you. They make you visualize things in the poor light that aren't there. But it's also a good time for attack, when everybody's getting lazy and jumping at hallucinations...and then the one time they don't react to something, and it's for're dead! God, I hate this war!

     Nervously, Georgia broke the quiet, continuing the thought from hours earlier, as if it had ended moments before. "This Army’s got me for another year and a couple of wake-ups. Hell, they can throw all they've got at me for that time...but no more! When it's over, it's over! The freedom I've got after that is mine. Maybe I might die first, but they can't take any more, and I won't give them any more than I have to...not a damned bit more."

     The next morning when Mulenburg called, "Saddle up girls, we're goin' for a walk in the park," he heard a lot of grunts and complaints, but pack webbing was thrown over twenty some-odd shoulders, and twenty M-16's in our platoon clicked, as they locked and loaded chambered rounds.

     We felt like mountain goats packed with twice our own weight, grunting and humping that mountain that always seemed to loom in front of us. Later that afternoon we came across three dinks who tried to vanish into spider holes at the last minute...but too late. One of them foolishly raised to fire and was cut down, but the others were grabbed and pulled out. They had venerable old rifles, ancient being too nice a word for them. They were bedraggled antiques that we all took bets wouldn't even fire without blowing up in your face.

     The wounded VC had a belly wound when Amos Wilder, the new platoon medic, knelt over him and started to administer first aid, but Lieutenant Shandtling pushed him aside.

     "I'll show you how we take prisoners in the Cav," he said as he emptied his 45 caliber sidearm into the VC. Still annoyed when the man was still breathing, he grabbed Gutcheck’s M-16 and proceeded to finish the job of blowing him away. When he returned the rifle he had a sardonic, self-satisfied grin on his face. "I just converted him to First Cav religion, where the only good gook, is a dead gook." His dark eyes flickered mischievously. "That gook ought to thank me, he really should. I made that dink a good gook."

     We managed to get the other two back to Lucky Strike, though Shandtling wanted to make them part of the landscape too. Muley convinced him they might have some info about local troop strengths and movements that made them worth more alive than dead, and reluctantly Shandtling agreed. That was the only thing that saved them. "You watch now," Moline whispered. "He'll probably get a medal for bravery above and beyond the call of duty."

     Soon we heard the familiar whomp, whomp, whomp, and there was a South Vietnamese Army interrogator who talked with the prisoners at length, but it didn't seem he was getting anywhere. The interrogator had a starched, tailor-made uniform, dark, cold, cruel snake eyes, and shiny, raven black, well-manicured hair, with a wisp of a mustache on his lip that jumped whenever his lips moved. He was chain-smoking and stalking around like a wounded bear, chattering, lecturing in a diatribe that, though we didn't understand the words, we had no trouble understanding the meaning.

     It was like a comic opera, and we all smiled knowing the arrogant little ARVN strutting around with the tight, sinister smile, wasn't getting anywhere. Both prisoners looked like kids, barefoot teenagers with black shorts and faded blue tunics, their hands tied behind their backs, and white gauze blindfolds across their eyes. They were drained of emotion, lacking all hope, heads impassively angled toward the ground.

     "If it came to having to choose between which of those three was safest to side with, I'd cast my lot on the two with blindfolds," Georgia joked.

     Suddenly the ARVN drew a 45, cocked it so the two could plainly hear the terrible metallic sound, and plainly know what was going on. In turn he held the barrel to each man's head, gave time for the fear to set in and laughed profanely as he slapped his thigh loudly to see the men jump; just knowing they had been shot.

     But still he was not getting what he wanted. So he stepped quickly to one man's back and without hesitation blew the man's head away. A quick chattering from the other prisoner and a grim smile on the ARVN's lips were evidence that his 'interrogation' was successful. When the talking died down, and several questions from the examiner were answered with one-syllable answers, the interrogator simply unloaded his gun into the VC and walked over to Trenery's tent. Mulenburg looked away, mumbling something about not taking many prisoners in this outfit. When he saw me looking, he said, "He didn't even have the decency to take'm up in a chopper'n cut'm loose at two thousand feet so we wouldn't have't see it."


     "The ARVN's do't all'a time if’n they've at least two prisoners. Shoving one'a them out't door of a helicopter at two thousand feet tends t’loosen the other'ns tongue. He gives'm the sudden mo-tee-va-tional talk."

     "Funny about that," I said.

     "Besides," he continued. "Shootin’ them’s prob'ly better'n if'n they took 'em along, ‘cause then somebuddy wopuld hafta house'm and feed'm."

     "Or like I heard," Georgia said, "he could have turned them into informants identifying their buddies. I heard about some ex-VC called Kit Carson Scouts, where these Chieu Hoi returnees are harassed, re-educated, then assigned to point out their former comrades. The Army calls them scouts. When I came through Pleiku, one of the scouts was getting a reward for identifying over thirty of his former comrades in two months with a Marine unit. The Army gives those Chieu Hois a taste of freedom all indoctrination they call it, and shoot them if they don't follow the rules."

     "I'd never turn in one of my brothers, not if I was down to my last breath," I said. "Makes you feel all warm and tingly inside, don't it?"

     Down the line a shot echoed, starting a confusion of voices rippling out from the spot in concentric circles, like waves, and someone calling, “Medic!” Everyone got a little tense, holding their fingers close to their triggers, and looking suspiciously at the jungle. The scoop came down the line that Howard Twilly had shot himself in the foot. "Claims it were an accident," Cliff Autrey, a fresh-as-sunshine, smiling black kid in the next foxhole said. "Claims he was just cleaning his weapon, but that excuse be so thin it leaks."

     "They'll court martial his butt for sure," I sighed. "They WILL call it an intentional wound."

     "His ass is grass whatevah way it comes down," Autrey said. He was a new man from Detroit, via A Company, assigned to us when both A and B got so shorthanded the brass decided to combine the two. They reorganized A with twinks for palace guard back at Betty till they got some seasoning.

     "Should have done it in the field," said Pete Chilcutt, our 6'5" neighbor from Austin, Texas, who had been assigned Shoot's machine gun. "You know, like Johnson Avrick at Tuy Hoa. Johnson just said somethin' about heading into the valley of the shadow of death, and suddenly...blam, he got a hole in the foot. There were a lot of bullets flying all around, so he claimed it was VC. He got his butt shipped back to the good ole USA with a medical discharge in his pocket."

     "You're gonna do it, that's the way to do it," said Arancho Sanchez from Los Angeles, as he and Doug 'Pathway' Hathaway from Arizona, slipped into our foxhole. "We were told to sit in with your squad here."

     "You'd have to want to get out of here real bad to shoot yourself," Hathaway sighed. "That's a hard way to go."

     "Not really," Autrey wisecracked. "Not that I be thinkin' about it, understand, but you gotta know what you're doing. You do it right, you hardly got a limp and a shuffle, but do it wrong, or let gangrene get in, they may have t'saw your foot off."

     In the reorganization of our company, First Lieutenant Alexander Riddick was our new Platoon Leader, a straight-up black man from Virginia, and Second Lieutenant Shandtling was the Company XO.

     "Lieutenant Rick's all right," Autrey filed us in. "He's a rock-hard lifer, but he does for his men. You need it, you got it with him; but watch out for 'the weasel.' I don't trust Shandtling far as I could throw a tank."

     Lieutenant Rick came up now with a twink to fill out our squad, Tyler Abercrombie, a round-faced, short-sheeted kid whose pack looked bigger than he was. Autrey looked at us and smiled, "Turtle," he said simply. "I think we'll call him Turtle."

     Nobody liked the swarthy little man from the moment he slithered into our squad. He started whining and complaining the first day, and never let up. He fell asleep on night duty regularly, even though threatened repeatedly by grunts who didn't relish the thought of their backs being left unguarded as they slept, VC slipping in while Turtle was asleep on guard, and cutting a few throats. Turtle was just too big of a liability, and didn't pull his share of the load.

     Sanchez said it best, "He's worthless as tits on a boar hog."

     "He's here because the Vietnamese government sent out a call for our help," Georgia said, grinning mockingly with his hand over his heart, "and Turtle, brave man that he is, answered the call."

     "Yeah, you bet," Autrey smiled, "Funny thing...he's in a different foxhole each night because nobody wants him, but I think I need to take that one about Vietnam sending him here because they needed him with my hip boots's getting pretty deep."

     Hand over heart, Georgia stood straight to attention, "You fellas are reading our poor, brave Turtle all wrong. He's caught the spirit, really he has. Turtle's seen gooks pushed and bullied, struggling for peace and freedom in which to raise their children." When we all smirked, he feigned hurt. "That's what the papers back home say."

     "Yeah, America right or wrong," Sanchez joked. "We're the might and that's right...and we're bad mothahs."

     "Don't want them countries that count on our support losing faith in our damned unerring reliability," Georgia deadpanned.

     "No, we don't want that," Chilcutt grinned. "I stay awake nights worrying about them losing faith in us, gettin' hardly no sleep at all. Their respect’s a small price to pay for seeing your buddies lying dead across some rice paddy hell."

     "You know," I said, "this Vietnam's nothing but a lot of battles like Hook. Hook's what this war is all about. A week after they're done and we've bloodied up the place, men from both sides having died horrible deaths, that place don't mean a thing."

     "I'm wondering if this whole damned Vietnam mess means a thing," Georgia said.

      "Yeah," I agreed, "that's the bottom line. What are we here for? This war's only about three things, Georgia. One is killing more of them than they can of us...two is survival...and three is making somebody back home who owns a canteen factory a billionaire. That's all there is!"

     "No joke," Autrey sneered. "We're only here so those making guns and napalm can live in style, with a bigger stash in the bank."

     "Can't see any other damned reason," Sanchez agreed.

     "I guess it was bound to happen," Chilcutt sighed. "They got designer jeans and designer dresses back in the world...why not a designer war?"

     "The only trouble is," I smirked, "somebody designed it with a flaw...they designed it to go on forever."

      "I don't know I can go on like I was before, after living with death looking over my shoulder for a year," said Pathway Hathaway. "I don't know if I can ever find my way back where I was. That life, those dreams, are gone for sure, dead and buried. I buried them my first week in Nam at a firefight beside my friend Thomas Phillips. He ended up in a body bag. He died in my arms. His blood was all over me, on my hands, on my clothes, even on my face. I felt the stench of his blood in my nostrils. I could taste it…and I never saw him again. That same day I killed my first gook, then my I don't care a rat's ass about anything anymore."

     Chilcutt, the big Texan, said, "I hear ya. They say Vietnam's meaningful. I don't know what meaningful means anymore. It's like it's in a shadow. It's there, but hiding so I can't find it. I just hope when I get back to the world I can sort it all out."

     "Something tells me you'll have a whole hell of a lot to think about." Pathway buried his head in his arms. "I still hear Phillips's voice crying as he died, 'Why? Why are we here? Why do I have to die?' And I couldn't tell him. I couldn't tell him then, and I couldn't tell him now...because I don't know. It keeps changing...It's crazy!"

      "This whole damn war's crazy, a total damn mistake from start to finish," Autrey said grinning, but grinning seemed to be his way when he couldn't face the seriousness. “You just grin, and life gets suddenly easier somehow. I just hope I don't have to pay for their mistake with my life. I lived all my life without seeing a drop of blood shed in it's everywhere...every day."

     "I thought I was a macho hero," Chilcutt said, and looked down the hill as if he saw something important. "I thought I was a macho hero, a big football stud. I could make a change here if anybody could, I thought." Everybody followed his eyes, but knew nothing was there. After a quiet moment, he looked back. "Now I don't."

     "Those RA, gung-ho lifers are what bother me," I said. "They have this self-righteous attitude that just because you don't want to kill, or walk in the valley of the shadow of death, you aren't a don't love your country. I mean, I kill...but I don't like some of them do."

     "They're the ones all messed up, Fredericks," Georgia said. "The sad part is, they don't even know it. They don't even know it, and they won't even stand back and look at it. They just go on being wrong, and thinking everybody should be gung-ho like them."

     "Gung-ho...I was gung-ho naïve like that once," I said, getting quiet. "That seems like such a long time ago."

      "And look where them damned, gung-ho heroes have led us," Chilcutt whispered. "I wish I'd gone to Canada. When I get back to 'the world,' I won’t ever come across the world to no damned jungle to fight, kill and die again...neither will my sons. I'll fight anybody that comes to America looking for a fight, but never will I go to some alien land looking for it again."

     "Chit, I remember when Trenery got up all dripping with humility when Otis Simshock died, chit. Said he understood the discouragement of men fighting and dying in a war, how'd he say...of 'constrained means and limited ends'...discouragement, chit. He don't know from nuthin' about discouragement. He don't understand at all what it's like down here with the boys in the barrio."

     "His kind never will," I agreed.

     Sanchez scowled, "Ever'body's gotta hear his damned drum roll and keep to the beat as he hears it. Those that don't keep the step are cowards."

     "He says each death causes him pain, chit," said Gutcheck. "He don't know chit for pain."

     "I got a grenade'll give him pain," Pathway growled, taking a grenade off his pack belt and lofting it hand-to-hand for a moment.

     I just sat there watching him toss that grenade back and forth, from hand-to-hand, and the thing that struck me at that moment was that nobody seemed to react. Playing with grenades and threatening to kill had become normal. That in itself was an indictment of the war.

     "After my buddy Egg died," Georgia said, "while I stood over him with tears streaming down my face, stuffing parts of him into a body bag, Trenery came up to me and tried to console me by saying he was going to put Egg up for a damned Bronze Star...a Bronze Star! As if that sure would make me feel a lot better."

     "I know it would make Egg feel better," I sneered.

     Georgia nodded. "Trenery tried to tell me what a good job we were doing, and how well things went. It was all I could do to keep from popping him with an M-16 round right there and requesting the Bronze Star for his raggedy ass."

     I was shaking my head. "I helped load the bodies onto the choppers at Hook, and Trenery was there. He tried to tell me how our generation of Americans enhanced...can you believe it, that's the word he used, enhanced! ... the record of the First Cav. He said we sky troopers ought to be intensely proud to be members of the First Team."

     "He must be smoking Saigon Red," Georgia laughed.

      "I care!" Sanchez tried to look sincere, but started laughing too. "He's asking, I'm caring...don't want to get on nobody's shit list."

     "Christ no," Georgia laughed. "People on that list patrol the point, and they don't last long."

     "Chit," Gutcheck growled, "Trenery said the war deepened his duty to God. Chit, ain't no God. I been praying to Him for a long time to end this hurt...but chit. It ain't ended!"

     "I heard him say war made him a better Christian. Told me once, 'I asked God to help me not to be a coward, and God did!'"

     "Fool's got chit for brains," Gutcheck threw up his hands. "God don't care! God got His own problems."

     "It's hard to believe someone thinks God makes him a better Christian just by blowing people's brains out," muttered Pathway. "But Trenery don't care. Trenery don't care about nothing or nobody but Trenery."

     "Nobody cares," said Autrey, even his sunny smile wavering to show the tortured man underneath. "I write my buddies back home about the war, they don't want to hear about it. My best girl left me for my best friend because she said I bum her out..."

     "Chit, she don't want no man that’s a baby killer," Gutcheck said playfully, lobbing a clod at Autrey.

     "I was writing to a girl friend from college," says Chilcutt, "but she kept complaining I was writing too much about fighting and death... Finally she quit writing. But fighting and death...what the hell else is there to write about over here?"

     "Heat," Sanchez says.

     "You got that right," Chilcutt nodded. "And mosquitoes."

     "You could write about that lovely banana plantation you walked through," I said. "You know, the one where the air smelled so sweet and fragrant, and the roses red and blooming on all the wait-a-minute bushes...just don't tell her about the bodies...don't mention the blood."

     "The fricking Army may have my body, but I'll be damned if they'll ever have my mind," Pathway said tight-lipped, then exploded out of the hole and walked down the line.

     "It's too bad," Georgia whispered, wet-eyed as he watched him go. "They do...they do. They have us and they won't let go."

     As I listened to these men spill hard feelings, I could feel it like a halfback straight-arming a defensive lineman. I had learned never to let 'them' get too close, because it seems like everybody I get close to...everybody...dies horribly. And each time I saw the blood, and picked up the pieces...each time...a part of me died too. I wondered if I could ever get close to anybody again. I remembered O'Neal saying once, "I don't have no friends...can't afford 'em!"