Sheer terror crouched beside me in the foxhole. Though it was invisible to the eye, I could almost touch the fear. I could feel its hot, sticky breath hanging putrid in the heavy air, panting down my neck. I tasted it cold and clammy in my throat. I felt it eating and gnawing at my gut. It was like a rock-hard lump in me. It weighed heavy on my soul! It was always with me, just below the surface of consciousness, but always there.
I had to fight to stay awake, staving off legions of demons pulling me deeper into the thick multi-layered dreams of terror and blood -- my blood. My terror! The horror pulled me apart, hallucinations floating like delicate gossamer webs in my very consciousness. I struggled amid the folds, surrounding me, suffocating me, engulfed by panic that someone at this very minute was thinking of ways to kill me. Someone was decisively planning my demise. Someone was gleefully, resolutely, preparing for my destruction. I slowly succumbed to the irrational fear that not only would my life be taken, but the very essence thereof would be forever destroyed. Delusions of utterly dark dread permeated me in a frenzied nightmare, as I fell screaming down a bottomless, funneled pit, down, down into the depths. I couldn't breathe. I could not stop it. What was going to happen, would most surely happen. I tasted absolute fear in the sanity-numbing hysteria congealing my brain like malleable concrete. It sloshed in my brain, slowly hardening into solid blocks of cement that weighed heavily in my stomach.
Thus I faced a mental enemy much more vicious and volatile than the physical one, in an omnipresent nightmare I couldn't escape. I felt totally at the mercy of men who had no mercy. And why should they?
The operation had all started like a dream, as so many terrors do. Three infantry companies of the First Air Cavalry Division were on a routine "search and destroy mission," plunked down in the middle of a bleak Vietnamese savanna.
The six soldiers crowded in my Huey, flying high above the rice paddies, had all made the trip from Landing Zone Betty like zombies, silently staring straight ahead, expressionless...all except O'Neal.
Franklin O'Neal was possessed.
He made the trip sitting tautly at attention, his M-16 at the ready across his chest in the "present arms" mode, his finger tight on the trigger, his rigid lips tight as barbed wire, his eyes blazing with a hard, impassioned stare. This was the moment he lived for.
As soon as the choppers began the descent out of the sky…hovering six feet above the ground, O'Neal climbed onto the skids and jumped with a banshee-like yell. He appeared to know what he was doing, running blindly through curtains of dust beat up by the whirring helicopter rotors...so the rest of us followed.
The Hueys, as suddenly as they'd dropped from the sky, filling the flat grassland with men, noise, and confusion, departed as abruptly, leaving a vacuous, unsettling pall behind. But we were lucky, this time. It was a cold LZ. There was no welcoming party to give us a hot reception. Airmobile infantrymen never know what kind of encounter awaits when they hit the ground. Could be a hot and bloody LZ where you have to fight your way out, or the LZ could be quiet. All the soldiers, except maybe O'Neal, preferred cold and quiet, but had to be ready for when it was a hot LZ. Blood and death could come so quick, before you even saw it. But this time the ground action was a farcical comedy enacted on a sweltering, powdered dust staging area...soldiers looking frantically for someone to fight who had long ago di-di-mau'd, the GI version of the Vietnamese word used to say, "hightailed it out of the area quickly, vamoosed, vanished, split, up and gone."
At the "gentle" urging of sergeants and commanders, our platoon formed a "search and destroy" formation, a formation line to completely blanket and search an area, destroying anything that opposed us. We moved out towards an objective no one bothered to tell my platoon composed of grunts, infantry ground-pounders, about.
O’Neal growled, as he led the troops into the tree line. “As usual, it's snafu time."
"Yeah, situation normal, all fucked up.”
The platoon leader, Lieutenant Pike, mumbled something about logistical intelligence distributed on a "need-to-know" basis, and grunts, the low men on the totem pole, just plain didn't need to know.
Ottel said the powers that be had long ago decided, in their divine and infinite wisdom, that infantrymen needed to know only what they saw immediately in front of their weapons, nothing more, nothing less.
Because of this, we grunts were even more surprised than Charlie when we entered the VC underground village. There wasn’t even a clearing. The green canopied jungle ceiling appeared to rise out of the very roofs of the village hooches. Charlie had di-di'd the hell out of there. He was vanished, kaput, gone and left. There was one solitary straggler, who shot at us entering the complex, as he went out the other side. He quickly dissolved into the jungle when the uninvited guests crashed the party with malicious intent and bristling weaponry.
I learned later the operation most likely had begun bright and early that morning when a chopper was shot down. "Eye-in-the-sky" helicopters were buzzing Charlie’s home, trying to find exactly where the Vietcong were in the three-tier jungle, followed by Huey gunships, blasting away at any movement. The eye-in-the-sky was B Company, 1st Air Cavalry infantry slang for small bubble choppers that would go out looking for a likely place to deposit us, as we grunts waited on the tarmac, all gear ready, camouflage chalk applied, waiting to be swooped up and headed for the closest fight at a moment's notice.
“Uncle Sam always feels an obligation to flaunt superior air power,” Ottel muttered, “to the point of overkill.”
All that was left for us GI's to do that day was mop up, search and destroy nine hundred underground hooches, dug beneath the jungle canopy cloak to avoid a spying gunship's eyes. We probed for guns, documents, and food supplies. What wasn't sent up the chain of command...was unceremoniously destroyed. Somebody would yell, "Fire in the hole," toss in a grenade, and move quickly to the next hooch before the dust and smoke even had a chance to clear. It was hot, dusty work.
"No sir," O'Neal said while lobbing a grenade into a hole, then ducking back and holding his ears to muffle the sound, "I don't blame Charlie Cong hating us grunts, not one little bit. I’d want to kill us too, I was him."
"Do tell," muttered Ottel.
"Yeah, I would shoot to kill anybody that came into my home like this...wouldn't you? Hell, you want to know the only difference?" When nobody answered, he said with hard, flashing eyes, "The only difference is...I wouldn't miss."
"This whole stinking war reeks with a stench you can't wash off," Ottel grimaced. "It surely does, but what you gonna do?"
"You can go tell Pike your concerns," scoffed O'Neal. "I'll bet he would be real interested in what you have to say...or you could just go to Hell...save us all a lot of trouble."
"I can't wait till I'm a free man again, and can kiss the soil back home."
"Kiss my ass, Ottel," O'Neal snarled. "Fuck you! The only thing you're going to kiss is your butt goodbye when the next Charlie peeks outta the trees."
"Ottel, you'll likely buy the store a few days before your DEROS, when you can get outta here," Riley said with a snicker. "Won't that be a hoot?"
"Where's your ‘esprit de corps' anyway?" O'Neal growled.
Ottel chuckled, "I don't know! I had it when I came in country, but can't seem to find it. Now I'm just trying to survive long enough to get back home across the pond."
"Tryin’ an dyin'," O'Neal scoffed. Then he leered at me as I came up alongside. "What about you, Greenie? Everything here goin' to your liking in our little bivouac? You finding a home here? Or maybe you want to proselyte us a batch of Vietcong local yokels. You want to save 'em, I can accommodate you," he said grinning with a mocking voice. "I'll send all you can find straight to their just rewards. I’ll give them dinky dau homeys a chance to meet the big man up close and personal." He slapped Riley on the back, and the two of them shared a good laugh at my expense. "I'll gladly make the introductions. What do you say, Christian boy? Speak up! Or doesn't our little mama's boy like our itty-bitty war?"
I didn't say a word. It would only encourage them. Besides, now wasn't the time. But later that night, with the forest’s black curtain isolating us in our foxholes, while the Vietcong raged in the woods and shot up the trees, I continued the debate.
"There has to be a better way of solving our differences than shooting at each other," I reasoned, "or blowing up Vietnamese homes. We've done nothing more here than make them hate us more, and escalate the war. When we kill someone, or burn his home, it only adds to the number of people who hate us, bringing in all his relations now newly arrayed against us, father, mother, brother, sister, children, friends."
"So what," said O'Neal. "What are you, a Cong lover?"
"Come on O'Neal, you know as well as I, if any fence-sitters were among these villagers that didn't want to choose either side, or if there were men with a spark of an inkling to lean our way, we just made up their minds for them. We just totally blew that spark out. We stirred up a hornets' nest this time, blew it to kingdom come, that's for sure! Women and children are homeless tonight because of us. Because of us fine, young Americans they have to search for shelter and something to eat tonight...maybe even go hungry."
"Stop it now," O'Neal mocked, "you're gonna make me cry."
"Breaks my heart," Riley grinned, looking for approval from O'Neal. "It does! Those poor dinky dau bastards.”
O’Neal smiled. “Them Cong know this is a killing zone. This is a killing zone where any man, woman, or kid with an AK-47 can shoot you just as dead. They don’t have to live here. Everybody knows they're supposed to have cleared out of here...unless they side with the VC, and in that case, I wanna have a word with 'em," he said, patting his M-16. "Just a word!"
"Who made this a killing zone?" I asked. "Did somebody ask the farmer herding his water buffalo to work in those dry rice fields we passed on our way in here?"
"What farmer? I didn't see no farmer," Riley said, looking confused.
"It was a rhetorical question, Riley," I said.
"You know, rhetorical, expressive language used in a case where it never really happened."
"...never really happened?" Riley was really confused now.
"There wasn't any farmer, Riley," O'Neal said with mocking nausea. "The Christian's yanking the branches of your tree.”
I wiped my sweaty brow on the dirty sleeve of my jungle fatigues. "But if there was a farmer, did he get a chance to vote? Was there an election? Maybe the farmer didn't care about either side. Maybe he just wanted to be left alone to feed his family...anybody ever think of that? Now we've decided for him which side he's on. We've just made him and his whole family our enemy."
O'Neal feigned sympathy. "Those poor Vietcong," he crowed. "Don't go getting the twitching awfuls on us...you a bleeding liberal commie lover?”
“No, but the...”
“No, hell,” O’Neal fumed. “Charlie will come paying his respects by and by. You can count on that. I'm sure he'll listen fervently to your abject groveling then, and gladly accept your miserable apologies." He swept off his camouflage soft cap, and mockingly bowed with exaggerated courtesy. His hair was thick and black and greasy, and his beard had a rough, three-day growth of whiskers.
I slapped at a mosquito, and paused to take mosquito repellent out of the band around my steel pot, applying it generously to arms, legs and fatigues. This is only what I appeared to do however. In reality, I just needed a chance to cool down from the argument.
"Guys, come on, ask yourselves, what would Christ do in situations like this? Wouldn't He try to talk to these people before blowing up their homes? Wouldn't He try to reason? I mean, I'm all for freedom and liberty, but do we have to hit them over the head with it? Maybe they weren’t even Vietcong.”
O'Neal gave a soft snort of disgust. "Maybe they weren't this morning, but they're Vietcong tonight. And if they weren't VC, why'd they make their hooches so hard to find?"
“The fact that they tried to conceal their presence from us doesn’t automatically make them the enemy. Hell, I’d hide from us too. I’d hide from anybody who came in with guns blazing first. Besides, do they even have to agree with us? Couldn't we agree to disagree? Don't they have the right to be different, as long as their rights don't interfere with another's? You know the old saying, 'Your rights stretch to the end of my nose...no further.'"
"I'll give the VC rights, all right," O'Neal grunted, flashing a weak, flabby smile. "I'll make sure them dinky dau bastards, them fatherless sons, are dead-right." His quivering lips trembled. "But maybe you want to tell 'em about them angels your man Joe Smith seen...you know, the ones that'll deliver 'em to golden streets of glory?"
"Lighten up, O'Neal," Ottel said.
"No, that's all right," I said. "O'Neal only hears what he wants to hear...but if only half, or even a tenth gets through that Neanderthal skull of his, then that's something."
"Oooo, Neanderthal,” O'Neal pretended to cry gravely, his face innocent as a baby's. "Oh, one of those big college words. Now the big bad man's going to go and hurt my feelings. Why, for shame," he said as he contorted his face in mimed whimpering. "You bad man," he hooted. "Maybe you would consent to read me something soothing from that Joe Smith, gold Bible of yours? I need me a little redemption .”
“No, you need a whole lot of redemption, O’Neil," Riley squawked.
I rolled my eyes in spite of myself, trying hard to keep calm so as not to show my distaste. I remained calm, controlling the anger I felt, as I would with the heedless prattle of a child...but O'Neal was a spoiled child grown tall, with murderous, monstrous thoughts in his mind, defaming the very beliefs at the core of my being. "He's just trying to goad me into a fight," I thought as I picked up a handful of bone-dry dust from the lip of the foxhole, and tossed it into the air, watching where it fell to determine which way the wind blew. But there was no breeze and the dust fell straightway to the earth. O'Neal didn't like being ignored, and this made him madder than anything.
"Listen, God boy," he nodded with a quick flush of pleasure, for it seemed O'Neal enjoyed nothing more than a good, high-fevered argument, "you're new here, so I won't take offense. I'll chalk down your brash words as the ranting of a rookie...a damned Jesus freak rookie at that, but that only means you'll take twice as much learning as the rest of us good old boys to get up to speed. Listen tight now, you might learn something from the master of war...or you'll surely die with little more fanfare than a frog with a forked stick up his gullet. 'Everything's fair in love and war...' or didn't you read that in your Army manual? And we’re here to kill ‘em, not save ‘em."
O'Neal's eyes burned with deep-harbored resentment, and I wondered why. I mean, I know there's a war and all, but where did such hatred come from? What had happened to O'Neal to bring out this side of him...or did the war only nurture a dormant seed that was already brewing there? I found the anger in O'Neal's eyes contagious, despite myself, and I found myself reacting too quickly, without thinking. "'Everything's fair in love and war,' tch, tch tch, how shallow. Did you come up with that all by yourself? I don't know where that absurd saying comes from, but it's probably passed down from some primitive culture. For sure it came from somebody without much sympathy...somebody trying hard to rationalize what he was doing. Somebody a lot like you! But it's not just that...don’t you get it? When the three companies that razed this place finished, they up and left. Now our platoon's all alone to take the brunt of any payback.”
O'Neal giggled like a schoolboy, his eyes shifting in his head, but he held his gaze rigid and steady.
“How do they expect a platoon to hold two thousand Vietcong back, that's what I'd like to know?"
"What do you want, somebody to hold your hand?" O'Neal snorted, "I'll tell ya' what you do. You just march your smart, tenderfoot ass up to Captain Trenery, and tell him you don't approve of the way this operation's being run. I'm sure he'd be mighty pleased to hear your wise take on things, you sagacious sack of shit. He'll be most objective in executing your suggestions, I'm sure! Go on! I’m sure he’ll be only too eager to discuss it with you."
Ottel laughed. "It doesn't take a brain surgeon to figure out that's not a smart idea."
I was incredulous. "Only twenty-six men from our ragged platoon are expected to defend this village. How can we ever..."
"That's not even a fair fight," Riley said suddenly. "I think I'm gonna be sick."
Riley drew a nasty look from O'Neal, who smiled obnoxiously, his voice suddenly hard. "Yeah, it's not fair, not fair at all...for the VC. We got Charlie right where we want 'im boys. Twenty-six to two thousand sounds like pretty good odds for the Vietcong-for-lunch-bunch."
"About right for the 1st Air Cav," twittered Riley with half-hearted bravado. "They don't call us 'Hard Corps' for nothin'. Charlie’ll never know what hit'm. We'll take'm, smoke'm, and break'm,” he grinned.
"Yeah, we got the tiger by the tail all right,” Ottel sighed. “O'Neal, why don't you be the one that goes out there and tells them poor VC they've done been had?"
"And spoil our fun?" O'Neal smirked. "I don't want to spoil the surprise as we nail them bastards. Besides, didn't we blow everything up with enthusiasm and intensity! I liked it. That's how it should be done, by the book. This operation's an instant primer for green GI's, and chapter one is, 'Wipe Out the Bastards Before They Do You.'"
"You're sick," Ottel said disgustedly. "I think you been out in the hot sun too long...Get real, man!"
"I'm sick, am I?" Syrupy glee ran thick in O'Neal's raspy voice. "You don't want to live forever, do you?"
I said, "Either he's sick, or the constant thought of death haunting O'Neal has pushed him over the edge."
A quiet smile stole across Ottel's face. "I must admit, I had thought about the possibility of that."
“AAAGGGHHH,” O’Neal growled. "Listen to me tight, Jesus freak. When Charlie comes, you kill them bastards before they have time to kill you. That's all! Don't stop to think about it...'cause you think about it and they'll be sending you home in a rubber bag. You just kill 'em, y'hear! Just like me!"
Ottel cast his eyes heavenward like he was talking to the stars. I was discovering that this was a mannerism of Ottel's. "I couldn't live with myself if I were like you, O'Neal...rather die first."
"That can be arranged, Jelly Belly." O'Neal's eyes glistened. "Just tell me when and where you want it, you muckety-muck college man from back in 'the world,' or do you want it to be a surprise? I know, don’t tell me, you were a la-di-da junior at Northwestern, you candy butt intellectual. I read your records," he gloated, proud of his skullduggery. "You would have been a la-di-da senior, but you had to go and pull a fraternity prank and get yourself suspended three months...that’s when they drafted your ass."
"That was stoo-pid!" Riley said.
"Yeah," Ottel sighed. "That was stupid all right. Getting thrown out of school was really stupid, because the next thing I knew the Army had inducted my butt, sending me to this dreary war to sit in this rat infested foxhole beside you. I so much enjoy O'Neal's scintillating conversation and sparkling repartee."
"Whatever," grunted O'Neal, with a quizzical look on his face that came from not knowing if Ottel had insulted him or not.
Ottel broke the silence. "If I had known then what I know now, that it would change me, that life as I know it would never be the same, I'd have hightailed it to Canada."
"But you didn't," Terence Riley said from where he huddled in the foxhole hugging his M-16. His empty eyes vacantly stared at the opposite dirt wall. "Ain't nobody gonna understand that ain't been here...nobody!"
Riley was a sandy-haired, pimply-faced California kid just old enough to steal his first kiss in the back seat of his father's Oldsmobile. He looked like he should be involved with proms and parties, not old enough to be concerned with life and death matters. But he was, and because he was, Riley, who would have to show his ID to get in a bar back in 'the world,' would never be the same, now that the government had slapped a rifle in his mitts and told him he was old enough to kill or die for his country.
"Oh that's just so sad," O'Neal snorted, "poor misguided insect. Why should they care, little brother? Try to understand, there's only two jobs in Nam for the Vietnamese. Either they work for the Americans at the PX, or work for the North Vietnamese shooting Americans. This here’s what they call capitalism in its purest form. Riley my man, you got to learn to do like I do, bag the Cong like animals on a hunt."
"Cong don't see no problem shooting us up, no way," Nigel Harry said, his black face glistening tensely. Fear rolled in his wide eyes, his muscles taut, his face a picture of gaunt, lethargic desolation. "No problemo! I'll leave them mother’s sons alone, they just let me be."
"But they won't," Riley said.
"The black pajama gang moonlights," O'Neal said. “By day they work for the Americans, but at night they fight for the Vietcong. They’re equal opportunity enemies that get you coming or going. I hate ‘em all.”
"When you're right, you're right," Nigel said. "They take our money with one hand, and they's all smiles and vinegar, sayin', 'GI numbah one...Gi numbah one.' Then when we gets all good and off guard, the other hand up and shoots us in the back."
Ottel's cherubic round face gleamed. His globular cheeks bulging like an overfed chipmunk with acorns tucked in his fleshy jowls as he philosophized to nobody in particular. "Got to admire their work ethic, though. They’re trying their very hardest to kill us, and we're trying to kill them...so then, what we have here, is a failure to communicate. On one hand we have a work force striving to do their job, and..."
"Shut your mouth, whitebread," Nigel said. "Victor Charlie be striving to kill my black butt, that's all I know, I don't need knowin' nothing else. And I sure as hell don't need no honky talkin' 'bout it."
A stray bullet whooshed overhead, whining, surrounded by moments of silent anguish, as each man involuntarily held his breath. Each soldier ducked spontaneously, shrinking into a little ball in the bottom of the hole, wondering if it was the bullet with his name on it.
When all was quiet in the jungle again, Ottel mumbled, "I think the greatest experience in life is to be shot at...and missed. It's such an adrenaline rush."
"Hallelujah, dear Jesus...let me hear an 'amen,'" Nigel said. "That's what we all pray for, a year of misses."
O'Neal growled. "Now, I don't know, but I strongly suspect, I wouldn't want to live in a place where I wasn't shot at, at least once a day. This is what I live for," he smirked. "It makes my blood rush. I love it!"
"You can have it," Ottel shrugged. "Nam pushes fighting men to two extremes. It either makes soldiers into atheists, or into men who pray a lot. And for what? In the quiet times you wonder, will anybody appreciate what we did here? Will they understand? Will anybody care if we die?"
"Hell, I don't even care if 'you' die," O'Neal chuckled. "Jelly Belly, nobody will even notice when you're gone. Nobody will even care when you buy the farm, and I mean nobody! ...No, I take that back. Everybody will wonder why it got so all-fired quiet all of a sudden."
"Anybody want ham and lima beans?" Ottel fingered an OD, Army-olive-green C-rations can out of his pack casually. When nobody took him up on it, he heaved it like a grenade into the night.
Everyone followed its course with our eyes, suddenly quiet, half expecting it to explode, listening to the night.
"Hope ya choke on it, Charlie," O'Neal snorted.
"Hope it sticks in your damned craw," Nigel whispered.
"Take that," Riley muttered.
Ottel shrugged. "Now where was I?"
"Stuck on my bayonet, Punk," O'Neal growled, sniggering darkly.
"You wish," Ottel replied, tossing the remark off lightly, seemingly unbothered. "Anyone who's ever hefted a gun in anger knows war is nothing but a fancy metaphor for boys in the flower of youth dying. 'Where have all the flowers gone?'" he asked, seeming pleased at the philosophical sound in
his voice... "Where indeed?"