Platoon Sergeant Jack Mulenburg, a lean broomstick of a man from Dreamlight, Arkansas, half crawled, half duck-walked from the neighboring defensive position, a large tree. Even in the dark of the very early morning hour I could see him crawl in, pausing occasionally to check the perimeter, moving slowly and methodically from one grouping of soldiers to the next. His helmet was almost too big for his head, hanging over his eyes like a turtle shell above his skinny stick neck. His gawking, lumbering movements would seem funny under saner circumstances. Now they weren't.
All had been quiet for hours, and I had just dropped off to sleep after my guard duty, when he moved up. Charlie had apparently not moved back to the scene of battle after their withdrawal, and were not to be found contesting our movements now. In my state of mind, the very air stirred with his arrival, making things...I don't know, different so I could not sleep.
"Nice night, eh Sarge," Ottel said with a weary sneer, a little too nonchalant under the circumstances. "Can you tell me why we, the flower of American youth, have to be over here fighting old men's wars? I could think of a lot of things I'd rather be doing than waiting on Mr. Charles."
"Well, young troop, Ah hain't quite got that'n figured out m'ownself. But when y'all find out...when y'all know, tell me, heah?"
Ottel had more to say. "Well Sarge, would you believe it, some idiots actually make a career out of this nonsense?"
Sergeant Mulenburg was ready for the sarcasm. He responded automatically with a line that sounded like it was rehearsed, and delivered anew at each stop. “This heah be mah ‘sole job,’ young troop, so don’t y’all go frettin' and bad mouthin’ mah trade. Ah be a ‘lifer,’ what's proud of the Army’s fine tra-di-tion.”
“If you’ll pardon my saying so, Sergeant,” Ottel quipped, “I got too close a look at that fine tradition last night, and if this is a part of that fine tradition you're talking about, I’d just as soon skip it, if it’s all the same with you.”
Mulenburg looked me in the eye. "Y'all the new man, PFC Jacob Fredericks?"
"That I am," I said, without moving.
"How long y'all been in country, young troop?"
"I came into Pleiku five days ago, but it seems like a year now. This is my second night on patrol and..."
"God!" Mulenburg said, gritting his teeth and shaking his head. "That's all we need on a night like this'n, anothah fresh-as-spring-grass rookie pokin' his haid in out heah, like we need new assholes. This y'all's first hos-tile engag'ment, young troop?"
"Yes, Sarge," I said briefly, suddenly uncomfortable talking. We were making too much noise, and I knew it was a guaranteed surety that Charlie had me in his sights, and at any moment would squeeze the trigger.
"Good God, young troop," Mulenburg said again, wobbling his head from side to side, his eyes rolling and pivoting like marbles in his head. "Evah fire a shot in anger before now? Evah shoot to kill somebody't wants to kill y'all so bad his teeth hurt?""
"No," I said weakly. "Not until a couple of hours ago...two VC I think."
"Not until a couple of hours ago," I repeated. "But it all happened so fast I didn't have time to think...but now I've killed, and I've seen men killed, and I've sweated blood, so give me some slack here, Sergeant...please?"
"Jacob did a lot of growing up last night, Sarge," Ottel said. "He's been tested. He's a veteran now. He'll be alright."
"Hey guys," I said, "I'll gladly volunteer to go home, if I don't exactly meet with your approval."
Sergeant Mulenburg shook his head again. "God preserve us, no need for that, I reckon. Don't sound like we have to do any baby-sittin' with ya, or go hold'n your hand, er nuthin' like 'at. Least y'all's not a slack-bellied slob like some folk I've seen come a-traipsin' out here with 'target' written all acrosst their faces. So Jacob, let me jest tell ya sompin' that jest might save yo' mis'ble life."
I was way past taking any advice about survival after last night. I just didn't want to hear it, but heard myself saying, "I'd be obliged, Sergeant. I'd be obliged to hear anything you can tell me that might save my life."
"If'n y'all see Mister Charles, young troop, and y'all surely will...y'all don‘t hes-y-tate a flicker...not a flicker, unnerstand? Cause you can bet your sweet pappy's caboose, he won't."
"Jacob got a taste of action last night," Ottel repeated. "He killed several VC and lived to talk about it...but I'll watch over him."
"Yeah! Well, don't go tryin' ta' be too brave, young troop. Brav'ry and patriotism be wasted on the young 'n foolish here.”
“Not being brave won’t be a problem, Sergeant.”
“Yessah! They be young brave soldiers galore heah, so thick they be comin’ outta' the woodwork sometimes...but there hain’t no old and brave soldiers."
"That's a lie," Ottel chuckled in a mocking, quivering voice. "My first drill sergeant told me all Americans are patriotic by nature, and bravery always follows patriotism."
"Well now, young troop, Ah don't wanna be callin' your drill sergeant a liar, really Ah don't, but iffen y'all looked real close, ya might have seen a forked tongue. There hain't no glory in Nam! There's just dirt and mud, mud and blood, and men covering theah butts waiting to recycle home. The name of theat game is sur-vi-val. Got that? Could'a been ‘at stateside drill sergeant was jest funnin' with ya, prepar’n y'all for the big show, young'n. Ah done seen my fill of patriotism over heah, Ah reckon. Ah done sent too much blood, guts, and glory home in body bags, and don't 'zackly feel like stick'n a toe tag on y'all's moldy carcass...not jest yet."
I heard Mulenburg muttering, "God help us!" as he alligator crawled to the next fighting position.
Watching him go, Ottel joked, "Mulenburg's alright, but he kind of reminds me what happens to a grunt with brain damage."
"What's that?" I asked.
"They make him a sergeant," Ottel grinned. "Don't worry about him...he's alright," then rolled over and went to sleep.
Later, when the jungle got even more quiet, I again became painfully aware of every little sound. I knew Vietcong still roamed out there, trying to figure out a way to get at me, figuring out the best ways to slit my throat. I knew they were out there...they had to be out there, because there weren't the animal sounds there would be if the jungle were left to itself.
I looked at the Boy Scouts again, no longer puzzling why they slept with their boots on. But no sooner had the thought crossed my mind than I knew. I remembered last nights "goat patrol." I had asked why the ambush patrol was called a "goat."
Ottel said, “The reason it's called a goat patrol is because a goat is the traditional bait used to trap a tiger...and we're trying to trap Charlie. See the connection?” Anyway, last night on goat patrol, the VC had tripped a warning flare we had set up across a lonesome village road, followed by terrified shooting from both sides that poked holes in the night. I had no way of knowing from where it came, but the gunfire sure startled me out of a sound but fitful sleep. "A bad rookie habit, sleep," I thought. "Sleep's a civilian luxury," Snyder had told me I had to "learn to live without." Anyway, somewhere between dead-to-the-world and half-awake, I squirmed on my belly like a reptile, alligator-crawling in my sleep fifteen feet past my position and towards Charlie with my M-16 cradled in my arms, before I woke up.
Talk about ruining the mood...O'Neal aroused me tenderly with the loving words, "Get your good-fer-nuthin' butt back here, ASAP! Charlie wanna, gonna ventilate your good-fer-nuthin' hide good."
Now, in the stillness of night, I dreamed a horrible dream of war. I was sitting beside a tree, sweating, waiting to die...then I blinked, my eyes opening in alarm. I was in Vietnam, in a foxhole behind a tree, sweating, waiting to die.
I shook my head in frustration, but no one saw me. Vietnam was hard to believe. It was too real...up-in-your-face...stinking-in-your-nostrils real. It was a nightmare that wouldn't go away that I lived every minute since I came to LZ Betty...but strange. It had all happened so fast. Only Saturday night, it seems, I was dancing cheek to cheek at a church dance with Brenda Barron back in "the world." I can almost still smell her perfume...so strong...so strong I'm carried away with it. I pinched myself to convince myself I was really here, and was saddened because...I was indeed here.
Talking of courage and bravery had been easy to do from the podium when I gave a farewell talk in sacrament meeting the night following the dance. Words like freedom, justice, and liberty tripped lightly off the tongue back then. Glory and freedom were illusional topics that I talked of, almost foolishly, as though I understood them fully.
Now I understood! No one who hasn't seen "the Nam" up close and personal can even begin to understand us fully. With a lump the size of Texas in my throat, those words came hard. Monumental fear pushed high-flung, fancy-sounding words out of the way, pushing and shoving them aside with the immediacy of just staying alive. Now I would be grateful just to survive. Time and again I had to dredge the rapidly fading words "freedom and glory" up to remind me why I was here in the first place, in this lonely foxhole, sweating in a place I couldn't even find on a map before I was plunked down in the middle of it. I so much wanted to go home. I wondered if I'd ever dance again. I wondered...really wondered, if I'd buy it tonight. I had never faced such fear. It was a fear that jumped up on my shoulders when I first came "In Country," and hadn't left. The weight of it seemed to be growing with the realization and understanding of the terrors.
As a kid, I'd thought of war like something out of a John Wayne movie. You know, where the good guy is shot at a hundred times, yet never dies. Now, though I had been in Nam only a short while, I knew good guys can buy it in the snap of a finger, just like anybody else. Nam is no respecter of persons. Perhaps the biggest thing that had struck me, there was no glory here. Nam was no war game kids play, and then go home to their mothers. I was here for the long haul.
I felt deceived and frustrated, as my mind carried me back to a Veteran's Day assembly in high school. I remembered the old men, veterans of past wars. How distinguished and proud they looked standing at attention. I remember their American Legion hats peaked magnificently, the determined look in their eye as they came to "attention." I remember patriotic strains stirring my breast amid the pomp, flag, and glory. I had soaked it all in. I remember the school pep band played "Stars and Stripes Forever" during a slide show honoring the old warriors standing stalwart, proud, and brave, chests covered with medals, misty eyes aglow with the glory. My heart swam. It had swelled to bursting then, thrilling at the praise bestowed on these venerable old war-horses. I had felt the macho bravery and tribute swell in me too.
War, and killing, and death certainly weren’t the objects of my Sunday School lessons taught during my formative years either. These classes were intended to arouse my spirituality, principles of pride, and patriotism in the name of God. They had exalted righteous war; for the Bible was replete with holy wars conducted in God's name. The stories told of heroes of righteous wars, and projected that desire to be like them, and image on me. I was taught that when you were called, you went...no questions asked. After all, it was God's will that you go.
I couldn't help but wonder now, with a bitter taste in my mouth, why does humankind always have to dignify, exalt, and aggrandize war in lessons to its young? When did war become a noble calling? Why does everyone say that God approves? Why does everyone, of every nation, always boast that a soldier's arms bear the sword of morality of Almighty God that will guide him into battle? Why do people from all sides, both friend and foe, insist that God stands beside them in victory, to the defeat of their enemies? I mean, God couldn't be rooting for both sides at once...could He?
Why have more evil wars and injustice been perpetrated in the name of God than for any other single reason? Look at all wars. Look at the crusades to drive the infidel from the Holy Land. Look at the Irish Protestants versus the Irish Catholics feud that has bloodily raged for generations. Look at those who yell, "Ali Akbar (God is great)," as they blow up busloads of women and children. Look at the Holocaust, and the six million Jews who died at the hands of a madman's final solution to purify the world for a God-loving Aryan race. In that war both Germans and Americans proclaimed the belief, insisting they fought with God on their side. Look at the Ku Klux Klan and their declaration they are God's right arm to purify the races.
I hadn't really thought like this before. I'm not sure why I did now. Can this be right? No...God no, the very thought makes reason stare. There must be something I'm not seeing...there must be more purpose. There must be...
I remembered the uncomplicated days of youth when everything was simpler, as I played with plastic soldiers in the dirt...whole Armies arrayed against each other. War seemed such an honorable profession then, rife with worshipful glory, adoration and veneration for men who fought for freedom.
I remembered how I felt back then, as the same glory the old soldiers felt flooded over me. I pictured them still, standing tall and proud. I had ached to feel the thrill of victory like they did. I had longed to be numbered among the good battling evil. What better cause was there in life than to fight for your country, freedom and liberty...for God Himself?
This same spirit was evidenced when I played with those toy guns and toy soldiers throughout my formative years. I had yearned for the day I would play the game for real; after all, didn’t war make men heroes? Didn’t war boast of such grand adventure, honor and morality? It was a proud rite of passage in the service of country...and God.
What a crock! I had grown so old so fast in Vietnam in only one oh-so-long night in a foxhole thinking of death and killing. A war so far from home had done that to me. I felt cheated now, facing mortality from a bleak fighting hole in a fevered jungle nobody could even point to in the atlas before it had flared into a battlefield, festering hatreds wafting overhead mixed with the sweet and sour fragrance of the rotting jungle.
I looked out on the battlefield...the faint smells of a mixture of napalm, gunpowder and blood still hovering in the air. Is this the adventure I dreamed of? Sinking fear of imminent death stunk in my nostrils, aching in my gut, sweat beading on my forehead? "Good God," I prayed dumbly, "where is the glory? Where is the morality? Where is the honor? Where are you, God?" I wondered.
"Have faith, Jacob," a still small voice emanated from somewhere inside my head.
My eyes flung wide open. I looked around, sure one of my buddies from the squad was pulling a joke on the rookie, but everything was as before. I shook my head to make sure I wasn't asleep. I had just about concluded that the voice was nothing more than sleepy imaginings, when I heard it again.
"Ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars: see that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places. All these are the beginning of sorrows." (Matt: 24. 6,7,8)
I was wide awake now as the voice in my head continued. "And it shall come to pass in the last days that I shall rebuke the nations. And shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears unto pruninghooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more."
"Have but the faith of a mustard seed, Jacob, for by such faith ye can move mountains, and all things will be made known to you in good time."
When Gelare Ottel rolled over to take a leak from where he lay beside the foxhole, before going back to sleep, we talked. "Don't take a body long to wake up to the facts of war and dying," Ottel said, nodding as if he knew...but did he know? Had he too heard the still small voice? Had it been real? Or was it something I had heard in the past that pushed its way out of my subconscious in the face of dismal fatigue, to the fore of the here and now?
"Vietnam has certainly turned my world upside down, Ottel," I replied. "I've tried, but I can make no sense of it...no sense at all."
"That's because there isn't any sense here. I mean, look around you...does this make any sense?"
"It's more than that. All my life I was taught by good parents, teachers and bishops, like it says in Proverbs 22.6: 'Train up a child in the way he should go; and when he is old he will not depart from it.' They taught me to love the Lord...and to love my fellow man. Like the Bible says, 'and if ye love me, love one another,' and, 'Love thy neighbor as thyself,' and, 'Thou shalt not kill.' Now I can't help thinking. This all seems so wrong."
"Welcome to the war," Ottel said in a somber voice.
All was quiet for the longest time, both of us in deep thought, then I spoke. "I used to love camping under the moon in forests like these back home," I said, leaning back in the bottom of the hole. "I even found romance in them. I remember this girl at camp..."
Ottel playfully tossed a clod of dirt at me. "There's always a girl back at camp, but..." he paused. "Terror rules the damned nights here, Jacob. Vietnamese forests aren’t filled with carefree laughter like the forests you camped in as a boy. Forests here are awful places, filled with sorrow, and death. Things do more than reach out and touch you here, they kill you...here. You're constantly surrounded by men whose major goal in life is to kill you. The sooner you learn that fact, the more apt you are to survive wetting your foot in the killing pool that is Vietnam."
I looked up at the moon just coming from behind some clouds. "It looks so peaceful now. The moon seems so innocent."
"Yeah, but it's a bloody moon. You pray for moonlight so you can see, wishing that moonshine would fill the gloomy shadows and show where the Vietcong hide. Then when it comes, filling the world with light, you curse it. You get paranoid, straining at it, worrying about being seen, hiding from it in the darkening shadows behind every tree, and every bush, feeling sure everyone within ten miles can see you.”
“Yeah, I know. In the moonlight everybody can see you lit up like a flare popped over your head. You make a better bull's-eye for Charlie’s AK-47 when the moon is romantic and full."
"There are bogeymen here in Nam," Ottel whispered. "Really, there are!"
“I believe that!”
"Your toy soldiers back in 'the world' didn't shoot to kill. No one dreamed of cutting your throat there on your campout...here they do. Killing and dying is a twenty-four hour, wall-to-wall reality. You can't eat without thinking about it, sleep without listening for it, or dream without reliving it. It's everywhere, around every corner, waiting for you behind every bush, or hovering in the tree line. You can’t find even one single minute of peace without fears of killing and dying boring into your naïve, all-American brain."
"How do you keep from going crazy?" I asked. "I've been here only a little while, and I'm already starting to wonder about myself."
"I rightly don't know," Ottel murmured. "Who says that you do?" Both of us automatically looked at O'Neal.
"I guess you just learn to live with the fear," I said.
"You have to! Fear is always going to be with you as long as you’re 'in country,' like an itch you can’t scratch. At first it’s at the forefront of everything you do. It haunts you relentlessly. It sits heavily on your shoulders, whispering in your ear, pointing out scary dioramas. It kicks in your ribs with its heel, adding tension to every waking moment. You can hardly breathe. Fear can smother you so much you can’t function at first, but over time there comes a slow dissolving into the background. Fear is riding you so much, with you every minute, so that you get used to it. It becomes so commonplace that you literally shove it aside, and walk right around it. You can lie right beside it and go to sleep. It’s always there still, but it becomes part of the woodwork of your consciousness. The only thing certain is that you are alive. You will go on. You just have to control the fear, or it will control you."
"I don't think I'll ever be able to forget what happened here this night."
"You never will, but you get to where you hardly notice it anymore. Fear no longer is your master. It doesn't stop you from doing what you have to do. You can again think without it shrouding every thought in black. You again make rational judgments. It's a case of have-to, Jacob, 'cause there's no end in sight, and if it's always right up there in front it'll blind you, and drive you crazy. There's no front here, no objective to fight for. The bigwigs don't want us to win 'cause there's no profit in winning."
"What do you mean?"
"Just what I said. Think of it! If the war was over, who would buy all the canteens, fatigues, guns and bombs. Combat boots would only find a market in surplus stores, and become a fashion statement for rebellious youth."
"I do kind of like the cut of my combat boots," I laughed, "and we can't let good ammo go to waste, you know, Ottel."
"Yeah, go on, just laugh it up. People are getting filthy rich on the war...and we ground-pounders don't mean diddly to the capitalist industrialists. Grunts are just expendable commodity to financiers planning the war on Wall Street. No sir, you can’t depend on anybody except the one watching your back, and that's your brother! Nam is about staying alive...surviving just one more day in a war of attrition where the last guy left standing is the winner. That about sums it up!"
"You paint a black picture, Ottel. It's appalling."
"Yeah, well...war is appalling. Like O'Neal said, the only thing you can do is 'Kill Charlie before he kills you.' Jacob, forget every romantic notion you ever had about war," Ottel said, “'cause it ain't happening here. Take World War's I and II, those guys were anxious to go over there to roust the Kaiser and kick some Nazi butt...they even wrote songs about it."
I smiled. "I guess in previous wars they were patriotic with the idea of pitching in, 'till it's over over there.' They just wanted to get rid of that madman Hitler that was making such a fuss."
"Funny," Ottel said. "I suspect you're right, but Ho Chi Minh looks too much like somebody's grandfather. He's kind of comical really. His long white goatee and robes make him look like he couldn't hurt anybody.
"Hell, nobody cares about Daddy Ho," I said. "We’re just over here trying to stay alive until our one-year tour is over, and then we can get the hell out of here."
"Meanwhile, we fight without reason, because...what else can we do? We kill and die without knowing why. We fight to take a hill, leaving dead grunts blood and guts all over, then the brass get another idea. They order us to turn and walk away like it meant nothing. After a while that's the attitude we get about the whole thing, 'It means nothing.' Then when we turn around, and surprise, Charlie’s dug in again, so we have to go in again, and take it again, spilling blood again. The hills in Nam are nourished with the red blood of American boys. It's mad, but that's not the worst."
I knew. "The worst is, nobody cares diddly-squat what happens here."
"Well, it seems like nobody. I guess a lot of people do care, but they're too silent. It's the noisy, obnoxious protesters that get the press and television coverage."
"Surprise, surprise," Ottel growled. "You're learning."
"Sadly, I am. I got a letter from my buddy while I was in basic training, who returned home after his tour. He said he got spit on stateside by some long-haired freaks. Some hippy girl came up and asked him how many babies he'd killed. People calling you baby killers, can you believe that? Baby killers!"
"Hell boy, nobody cares about you here, but you and your mama," Ottel grimaced. "Least-wise, here you've got a band of brothers," he said, as he looked around at the men sleeping in every conceivable position, "even if they are a motley lot. We need each other to survive."
"The papers back home say this war is to save a brave, young nation fighting against communism."
"Shit," Ottel scowled, "Brave! If Nam's in reality that much of a snow job I wouldn’t be sweating so much. Who are we fighting, I ask you? And who are we saving?"
I shrugged. "A brave, young country...democracy?"
"Hell boy, you are naïve. You probably even think if communism prevails here, the commies will soon be marching up Main Street in Hometown USA. Damn! Let me clue you in. That ain't gonna happen! The South Vietnamese government we're fighting and dying to protect is more corrupt than the one we're fighting against. The NVA and Vietcong are better fighters, and more dedicated than the ARVN. South Vietnamese politicians rig their elections, and live high on the black market...and the drug market. Politicians shoot each other in the back here. They decapitate officials that don't agree with them. In an election year the one with the most power even puts his opponents in prison before the elections, you know, to insure he gets elected. They say half the ARVN Army is infiltrated by VC who'd slit your throat in a second if they got half a chance. Years from now when this war is in the history books, people will look back. They'll think of loved ones who died here and ask, 'Why? What did we gain for all that death and suffering? How did so many boys' deaths promote freedom? Did fighting in Vietnam do anything for the security on American streets?'"
I looked puzzled. "I heard a guy in church say, 'No pain...no gain. Out of great personal tragedy comes great personal growth, and pain is the precursor to all growth and...'"
Ottel glared, "Hell, that's bull crap. There's no personal growth in Nam, but there sure is a boatload of pain. Yeah, we've got the market cornered on that one. Fact is, you'll be damned lucky to make it back across the pond with half of what you came in country with...some other way than in a body bag. The grunts could win this war in a week, if Washington wanted to win...but it won't happen."
"What do you mean, we won't win?"
"The corporations running the government don't want to win. We drop tons of bombs on rice paddies and empty warehouses, but they're token bombs. Bombing the good stuff, the strategic targets, is off-limits for our planes...mining war supply routes from China and Russia, off-limits. God only knows why the greatest nation on earth has to fight Charlie on his own terms on his own turf, toe-to-toe in the back alleys of his jungle."
"Yeah, why do we have to fight Charlie in his own damned backyard?"
"That is a great conundrum, Jacob. I don't see how anyone can go on day after day, slogging through the jungle, constantly getting shot at, dodging punji stakes and fighting off mosquitoes, without asking why? Nam changes your whole attitude towards life," Ottel chuckled sardonically.
"Yeah, I can already see the change...and I don't like it."
"Jacob, I can't believe how much I've changed. I used to be gung-ho and starry-eyed, like you, but that was once upon a time, a long, long time ago. Now, I look in the mirror and I can't comprehend the stony eyes looking back. I can't abide mirrors, really, 'cause I hardly recognize myself in them anymore. I joke about O'Neal, but in my heart I'm scared shitless, because every day I'm growing more like him. I can’t believe how hard I've gotten, Jacob. I used to think I'll never be like him, this won't be me, but now, when I think about it...it is." He looked away, staring at nothing.
I looked over at O'Neal. He had his arms wrapped around his M-16 so tight he looked like he was cuddling some mamasan in an erotic embrace. It was almost funny. Turning to Ottel, I mimicked my stateside drill instructor's harangue from basic training when he introduced us to our weapons: "In war, your M-16 IS the closest thing you have to a loved one. It WILL give meaning to you miserable maggots. It IS your BEST friend. You ain't had NO GIRL treat you so fine as your M-16. Your weapon IS your lady. It IS life itself. You WILL learn to love your weapon more than your mother, your father, or your old lady. Your weapon WILL never leave you as long as you protect it, love it, care for it. Your weapon IS more important than your arms and legs, and a hundred times more vital. Because if YOU LOSE an arm or a leg you go on living, but if YOU LOSE your weapon in a firefight...YOU DIE! Your weapon IS an extension of the infantryman's killing soul. So always HOLD onto it. GUARD your weapon jealously! BAD THINGS happen if you don't."
We both laughed. We laughed so hard we had to hold our hands over our mouths to muffle the sound. But that was OK, because for a moment the fear was further away. It was out of our minds somehow.