Dan Barker enlisted in the Navy at the age of seventeen. Two years later, in 1965, he found himself in Vietnam as a Navy corpsman assigned to a Marine unit. A quarter of a century later, Barker has detailed his experiences in a novel, The Snake That Became A Tiger, from which the following excerpts are drawn.
Many readers will remember Barker from his article “Giving Away Gardens” [Issue 181], where he wrote of his ongoing efforts to construct vegetable gardens in Portland’s inner city. Funded by private foundations and trusts, Barker builds gardens in the back yards of recipients, and contributes seed and advice — all at no cost to them.
Born in Sacramento, California, Barker, now forty-six, has worked a variety of jobs over the years, most of them, he laughs, “low-paying.” In addition to his efforts with the Home Gardening Project, Barker also works as a textile artist with metallic threads and satins in his “American Tanka” series, based upon ancient Tibetan art.
Barker is currently in search of a publisher for The Snake That Became A Tiger.
— T.L. Toma
All the roads in our neighborhood led to war. John Wayne wet dreams and the Boy Scouts, Frank Sinatra and Steve McQueen playing jungle fighters, just added fuel to the histories of the men on our block. There was Mr. Snow who lived in a dark house in his wheelchair; a Chinese bayonet had sliced through his spine. And Mr. Frank down the street — quiet, moving as if he still felt the weight of the ambush that killed his squad, and the burden of his survival — knocked out by a bullet creasing his skull. He said he could still hear the Germans laughing as they sauntered away. And Mr. Johnson, the fireman who’d served on Okinawa, sadly telling the story of the Japanese throwing themselves into the sea, intimating that the cowardly horde fleeing Christian righteousness could redeem themselves only by suicide. And Mr. Chatworth, who drank a fifth a day to balm the wound in his soul, self-inflicted by slipping over the Communist lines in freezing Korea to kill them in their sleep with his commando knife.
Implicit in my family was the acceptance of lamed and maimed men. The women would care for men of such valor, and would send their sons to serve. Three sisters had married veterans who hailed from the South, two of them wife-beaters and child-abusers, and one a gentle, teary man with his left leg blown off in the Battle of the Bulge. Uncle Sly, who’d spent four years on Guadalcanal and suffered from sergeant’s fury, beat his son. At first light and at dusk he’d step out onto the porch and smoke five or six Camels — gazing back into island warfare, his eyes fixed on the treeline from which the Japs would rise up to slaughter him and his friends. We children would long to touch the medals and rifles enshrined in a glass case upstairs, to absorb the power of the tools used to cleanse the world of tyrants.
My father had stayed stateside with the women. Thus for me, to not be a Marine was subject for shame. When I joined the Navy and became a corpsman, I only half-fulfilled my family’s ambition for me. Working on the ward at night I’d listen to the men shipped in from Vietnam or northern Thailand moan from their wounds — kidney failure, severed spinal cords, shell fragments lodged in their brains. Some of them would rise up from their exhaustion screaming in terror, their sheets soaked with urine and sweat. Mystery surrounded their failing bodies, currents of combat like ghosts of our futures. But even wounded or dying, they were beyond any claim any one of us could make. We’d gather around them to drink in the glory, as if to be pierced by steel in a furious hour would make us men to be reckoned with.
Lying in bed, whole, nineteen, the world pure and safe, I’d work up hero-mayhem fantasies to push me further toward dying in war. Vietnam’s dark current floated in the blood, stretching past cavalry-hunting Indians, the Japs, the millions of already-dead Chinese surging into machine-gun fire in the timeless black and white of newsreel, the dead and maimed members of races inherently inferior, their lack of regard for human life sufficient cause to end their existence. I’d see myself standing outside the ward at the Saigon Military Hospital protecting the wounded men inside, the eerie light from a flare showing me crouched over a mound of dead Viet Cong, a .45 smoking in my right hand, a wound in my shoulder.
The two sets of teachings, the Christian good and the political good, were churned and twisted like the snakes entwined on my caduceus. So what if you got killed? Millions upon millions had died before you and would die beyond you. The concrete agonies would slip away beneath a black curtain of blood, reducing you to pure atomed ease, starlight breathed through with God. What if you were wounded in your body, scarred in your soul? The world offered provision. Veterans hospitals to cure you till you died, women to bring you lunch on a tray, the grenade that blew off your leg or your arms or your hands or your eyes or your balls — provident, so that never again were you expected to act as a complete and whole man. And therein lay the promise of a kind of freedom.
But there was no Naval Hospital in Saigon. There was only one way to free oneself from bedpan duty and the lovelessness of Oakland. It was also the way to escape the low opinion of my friends, family, and self: Fleet Marine Force, Seventh Fleet, bound for Vietnam. As I signed the papers I could feel myself throwing away the World.
Through the wire, beyond the bell of sanctuary afforded by our hill positions, we spread out down the length of the dirt road facing the hamlet. We could see the twelve-foot thorny hedges surrounding the thatch houses. The walls and shattered roofs of the few outlying stucco houses had long ago been blown out by grenades and rockets. Camphor smoke rose in thin straight columns from inside the village. Barely an hour after dawn and the heat was already stifling. Salty sweat blurred our vision, making the village stagger in the heat, making it appear to be held together by perception alone, peopled by ghosts. A thought could extinguish two thousand years.
A gloomy silence came from the village, as if even the house geckos had stopped breathing. The villagers had been through this before. We knew they knew we were coming. We were sure the VC were waiting for us in pillboxes or behind paddy dikes or in underground spider-holes or tied to tree limbs, hiding invisible instant death, the bullet that would kill you silent and unknowable; if you heard it, went the lore, it was already gone.
To the villagers it was inevitable that we would enter their homes and search for weapons and men. A hundred years of occupation was fated by the Wheel. The seed of a life’s end is in its beginning. The rice told them that. Violent men sought violent death. VC, ARVN [Army of the Republic of Vietnam], Marines: it didn’t matter much which killed you, you were just as dead.
The ground approaching the hedges was rough with clods of weedy sod. As we advanced forward, the NCOs shouted, stay on line, keep your interval. Everyone was walking forward with his rifle held waist-high, aimed toward the village.
Several men had nervously stumbled, so when we saw Gonzales go down we kept moving. But Gonzales hadn’t stumbled, he’d flown back ten feet, as if slammed by a huge fist. The sound of the single .50 caliber bullet had been muffled by the clump his body made hitting the ground. His corporal went over to his prone body and kicked him in the thigh, telling him to get up. But Gonzales was grimacing, his eyes wide open and blank. It was unbelievable. None of us had ever really seen a dead Marine before. The reality of his death had no place to register. The platoon corpsman rushed to the clot of men forming around Gonzales. The radio instructed the squad leader to keep the line moving. The corpsman knelt and checked for a pulse. He opened Gonzales’s flak jacket to listen for a heartbeat. “Fuck, corporal, this fucker is dead,” the corpsman said, as surprised at his proclamation as the men around him. It wasn’t until then that the squad leader ordered his men to take cover, and asked if anyone had seen anything.
“Maybe from that house there, at two o’clock,” the man who’d been walking next to Gonzales said. “Maybe I saw a rifle flash, I don’t know. Is he really dead?” he said, and the look of a scared boy came over his face.
Two men from Gonzales’s squad were detailed to sit with his body until a helicopter could pick him up, and the line of men continued to move toward the village. Only one shot had been fired, a direct hit that kinked and confused our minds. Charlie had fired first, but no one had presence of mind even to name what had happened, much less fire back. Word of Gonzales’s death spread quickly up and down the line, and by the time we’d kicked through the hedges our fear and shame were turning to a sharp desire for revenge.
Mindful of tripwires and booby traps, we filed down lanes bordered with thatch and bamboo houses. Many were empty. Some were occupied by betel-chewing old women tending their cook-fires. Some held four generations of women, the fourteen-year-old with her baby on her hip, her mother protecting eight- and ten-year-old boys who tended the water buffalo and the ducks, her mother who swept the courtyard, and her mother who leaned into the thatch wall, smoking and chewing, waiting for tuberculosis to consume her. The lanes split and divided, winding around a tree trunk, bordering the small stream that ran toward the sandy graveyard just outside the hamlet, heading toward the central square.
We entered the houses unbidden, poking our bayonets into the thatch roofs looking for weapons and ammunition. We forced the women and children and the few bearded old men out of the homes and prodded them at gunpoint to the square. Not one of the Vietnamese offered protest or resistance. They’d been through this before, with the ARVNs, with the VC, the French, the Japanese, and now with us. What we saw as passivity was actually stoic wisdom; armed, frightened boys were dangerous.
At one of the houses three Marines had rousted the people huddled in a corner, then swept through their cook-pots and their makeshift altar looking for VC tracts, when one of them noticed a woven mat under a rope-frame bed. He wrenched the bed aside, and pulled up the mat. Under the mat was the opening to an underground bunker. It was the first one we’d seen. “Use a grenade,” the corporal said. Just as he was about to pull the pin, the woman of the house reached out to stop him, calling shrilly into the hole. Brown, calloused hands fluttered into the opening, followed by two older women and several children. The woman who’d called the warning was sobbing, explaining that they were frightened, they didn’t know what to expect. The corporal seemed to understand, and made a motion with his hand, first pointing to each of the women and children, then drawing a circle, and pointing outside. The woman nodded. The corporal shooed them out of the house, and when they were twenty yards away, called over his shoulder, “Blow it.” The Marine tossed the grenade into the hole, then ran to catch up. No one knew if there was anyone else down in the bunker, if they were VC or too old to walk or too scared to trust us. The grenade exploded with a muffled crump.
Word passed among the squads to check for bunkers, and through the next three hours of searching we heard many more grenades exploding. Many of the houses had bomb-shelter bunkers. The people had no other course of self-protection but to burrow underground.
Dappled sunlight filtered into the village square. Most of the population stood around its edge, women with lank black hair knotted at the backs of their heads, dressed in serf black, children in singlets and no bottoms, many with protruding bellies and oozing patches of ringworm, flies nursing at their eyelids. Old men with wispy white hair and dirty breechclothes sat on their haunches watching the mad parade. No men of military age had been found. The VC who had shot Gonzales through the heart had not been found. No weapons had been found.
The Marines took up standing positions behind the crowd, and the company’s executive officer sauntered to the middle of the square. No one in the company spoke a word of Vietnamese and there was no one able or willing to translate for him, so he spoke loudly, hoping the force of his bellow would impart meaning. He pointed to the Marines who had routed the people and thrown grenades into the bunkers, and said, “We are here to help you resist the Viet Cong. We know there are Viet Cong here, in this village. We want you to tell us who they are.”
But the crowd remained quiet, watching the big American from New Jersey rant the message they already knew by heart. It was the same old story: someone with a gun will kill you if you help the other one with a gun who will kill you, if.
At first light the company corpsman came to take me up to the helicopter landing pad. The brass was coming down the hill with the VC prisoners. It was our medical duty to certify that they hadn’t been beaten and brutalized while in our custody, before they were sent off to be executed. We joined the gathering clutches of men waiting at the pad.
The whole headquarters group came down the hill, beaming with pride and swaggering élan. The two VC were trussed in their midst, hands bound with communication wire, battle dressing loosely tied to their wounds. Reaching the landing pad, the captain pushed them both down to kneeling positions while fingering his .45.
The interrogators were flush from taking Dexedrine to stay awake during the arduous questioning, though none of them spoke Vietnamese. They’d spent the night poking the VC prisoners, examining their ancient weapons, probing in their pockets for documents and identification cards, threatening them with summary execution, heaping humiliation upon humiliation until it got light enough to land a chopper.
The VC were crying. Drawing close, I saw they were peasant men, worn down to long muscle and bone by struggle, half their teeth gone, the soles of their feet wide and thickly calloused, salt-tear trails caking their leathery cheeks. The Marines jeered them because they were crying over being sent off to be executed by the ARVNs. Mud coated their black hair. Both men were probably in their forties, tending their fields like the men of their village had for a thousand years, defending their families and their livelihood and their land like men everywhere. In a few hours or in a few days they would be dead — after the ARVN beat confessions out of them, or applied electrodes to their balls and sent jolts of concentrated anguish through their bodies until they wished to escape by dying, by being shot in the head or dragged behind an Amphtrack or thrown from a helicopter, anything to make the pain stop.
I was reluctant to give my certification that they hadn’t been brutalized, as if by withholding it I could somehow save them. At that moment they were simply men. They had been out last night to shoot us and kill us in an ambush, like we them, and that made us equals.
Amid the jeering, the company corpsman leaned in close to me and said, “Let’s get it done.” We lifted the battle dressings to determine the extent of the wounds. The wounds had been cleaned and dressed, though sloppily. Looking into the furrowed gouges made by the bullets, I saw purple muscle netted with coagulated blood. There was no fat visible, no bone, no swelling. The men could have been made of wood.
“Yes, Captain, they’re okay for transport,” I said at the company corpsman’s prodding. The captain smiled. He had won. Now we were all in their death together.
“That’ll teach ’em,” Orrick said to another man in his fire team. “Man, did you see that? Everybody was firing. Shit, even Doc was firing.” And he grinned at me. He was a happy man.
It was too hot to be cautious. Everyone wanted to get out of there, back to the base where we thought it was safe. The VC had gone. We couldn’t see them or feel their eyes tracking us. We found nothing but a tight bundle of clothes, some brass, and a pair of sunglasses. There were no bodies. No blood trails. No body fragments. No victory. A Marine said, “That’s Charlie, Skipper, he was just shaking hands.” The captain looked disappointed. After the exhilaration of the firefight, after expending thousands of rounds of ammunition, even after realizing that we did not hate or loathe the enemy, even thanking him for blooding us and letting us in on the secret that to defend ourselves against death was as natural as breathing in your sleep, the lack of any evidence that we had injured the enemy spun us into further apprehension. We untangled the bundle of cotton clothes the VC had left. Among the shirts and shorts, Da Nang wear, the clothing of cyclo-riders, was a bra. A woman had been firing at us. Odious thought, to kill a woman. Frightening that a woman was courageous enough to take on a Marine rifle company. Our mothers had bred us to defend the nation.
The monsoons would come in at ten after four every day, and it was the only time during our tour there that we were regularly clean. The rain would start in silver torrents, and we’d strip and shower under them, wild with converting an adversary to an ally, laughing, scrubbing the mud and dust out of our fatigues, soaped and rinsed in minutes. Then the night would come and if I wasn’t out on ambush I’d lie in my bunker, twisting to avoid the leaks and get some of that half-sleep where you think you might be asleep, you even dream, but your eyes are wide open, your boots still on, your pistol beside your hand, and maybe for a minute or two during the long waiting you don’t think about blowing your own brains out and getting this shit over with. Ira Hayes, the Pima Indian from the Battle of Iwo Jima, said, “You don’t go to war to get killed. You are already dead. You go to find your life.” Core theme of every man around me, expressed in various lusts for valiant battle, discovered courage, spiritual unions with others in friendships that would last a lifetime, or like the corporal who had money sent from home so he could take advantage of the black-market rate on converting dollars to Military Payment Certificates to piasters to dollars, or just slugging through, satisfied simply to survive, the future would take care of itself whether you were there or not. Light another Pall Mall, and another, maybe today’s hump won’t be so bad, self-destruction a father’s fist; later in life you’ll thank me for this, boy.
Back to the Battalion Aid Station to resupply my kit, I stopped to pick up my beer ration and ran into Doc Bolt. I’d consciously avoided Bolt; he was violent and provocative. Not violent like the Marines, full of posture but so wired into each other that fighting among the ranks was rare, but violent in that he enjoyed inflicting bruising pain and humiliation on anyone foolish enough to fall to his challenges. He was short, five-five at best, and about as wide. He had a Saxon’s head and no neck. His shoulders were massively muscled, his chest deep. He stood on legs bred for wading through the slaughter. His face was constantly furious, aching to be beaten. What he was doing as a corpsman and not a Green Beret or Marine was beyond me.
Once, in the hold of the USS Galveston, while we were docked in Olongopo, I stood watching Bolt and a Marine exchange bare-knuckled blows until I grew bored by their tedious crunching. The Marine traded him blow for blow, talking to him all the while, saying he was trained as a boxer, you could hit him all day and he wouldn’t feel a thing, let’s just give this up as a draw, then smashed Bolt a solid blow to his mouth, splitting his lip.
Bolt refused to reply, Alabama mean and sullen. Finally, the Marine grew tired of the contest, turned his back on Bolt, and walked away. The insult threw Bolt into a rage. He was about to spring onto the Marine’s back when I stepped in front of him, saying we’d better go to sick bay. Exhausted, he came with me, and I led him down to the duty corpsman, who iced him down and stitched him.
Bolt continued his fighting while he was out in the field with Foxtrot Company. Fighting in the field was a seriously stupid thing to do. We needed each other like life itself, and with everyone armed to the teeth, starting a fistfight could soon prove fatal. He was sent back to battalion. In charge of the sick-bay tent, Bolt was lording over his territory when I came in holding my beer and looking for a place to sleep that night. I tripped on the step, spilled a dollop of beer, and ignited Bolt’s fuse.
An argument about seniority ensued, but he wasn’t listening. He started backing me up, his fists clenched at his sides, tendons bunching in his face, me saying, now don’t get your jaws tight, don’t you remember, I helped you once. But he didn’t care. All he wanted was a fight.
I blocked a few of his punches, figuring his hate of men born tall would win his fight for him. A left jab caught me on the cheekbone. His foot lashed out, trying to kick me in the balls, letting me know that he was absolutely intent on doing me damage. I struck out, missing badly.
He was still backing me up when I saw the Battalion Aid Station staff looking on in tired wonder, and I started backing toward them, hoping someone would stop the fight. Not once did it enter my mind that I could beat him. He got in a few more snapping jabs, stinging my face, which must have looked like that of a child being beaten by his father, frightened and bewildered. It incensed him even further. My glasses went flying off. I saw a right coming at me, blocked it. I could hear my father saying, get in there and rip his eyes out. No rules in a street fight.
Then a crashing left smashed into my right eye. I’d never been hit so hard in all my life. My mind went black. I was sprawled on my back trying to figure out how I got there when Bolt dove on me, his knee landing in my chest, knocking the wind out of me. The man knew how to fight.
What happened next is still muddled in memory. I saw his fists pounding my face with furious rhythm, and my arms rising to block them. I lashed out and felt my fist connect solidly with his face, but it didn’t stop him. I couldn’t see out of my right eye. The men who’d been watching finally pulled him off.
Back at the company position the next day, several friends greeted me with, “What happened, Doc?” My eye was badly bruised, and I was embarrassed. Upon hearing the story, Marshall picked up his rifle and said, “Let’s go, man. We’ll do the motherfucker.” And I said no, it was a fair fight. But his were the sweetest words I’d heard in that horrible place.
We set about clearing the flats of stone fragments, using them to build low protective walls from behind which we could fire and sleep. It was work familiar from childhood, from ancient muscular motion that built parapet and wall, castle and moat. The walls weren’t contiguous, but individual semicircles of rock spaced every fifteen feet or so, starting at a small falls and ending at the bend in the stream. Each two-man team could place its trust in each self-devised protection, like neurosis. Soon we were finished, chinking the openings with pebbles, then sitting back to heat up some beans and weenies, eat, and wait.
Behind us rose a steep, thickly jungled hillside, and before us, across the stream, rose another two-hundred-foot hill. There were only two ways out of the box we’d framed for ourselves — one back down the tumble of falls and rock, and the other farther and deeper into enemy territory. Overhead, the canopy was too thick to allow for helicopter pickup or resupply.
Feeling like we were fish in a barrel, I had to know what was beyond the bend in the stream, if it was a possible escape route or if a company of the North Vietnamese Army were also having their lunch. The rest of the men seemed satisfied to simply wait for night and worry about what might happen then. Telling Sergeant Botts I was going out for a look-see, he gave his permission with a lazy nod, like there was no point in trying to manage a corpsman.
The moment I left their line of sight, I was overwhelmed by the sensation that I was alone in the middle of a hostile country. My skin grew eyes. Insect brain, monkey brain, man brain calling back millions of years, all alive at once. Then there he was, standing not twenty feet away. Young, wiry, black pajamas, no hat, a wicker full of rice strapped to his back, Ho Chi Minh sandals. There was a look of startled apprehension in his eyes. His hands moved to pat his body for a weapon, but he had none.
He was just a boy, a skinny kid whom I could easily break in half if I got close and mad enough. A hundred kinds of panic whipped through me. What was I supposed to do? Shoot him, capture him, warn the others? If I shot him, would that tell the maybe ten or twenty or fifty other VC behind him that there were Marines in the area? Mount the attack? Was it fair to kill an unarmed kid carrying rice? Everybody has to eat. If my dumbfoundedness provided a common mercy, would the war be lost or won? If I didn’t shoot him, would my friends call me a chickenshit?
My eyes left him for the half-second necessary to unflap my holster, and in that time he was gone. Up a trail beside the stream, into the bamboo shadows, and I couldn’t see him anymore. I was relieved, perplexed, instantly knowing that even as a corpsman my duty was to have shot the VC courier and brought his carcass back to the ambush site as a trophy, let the chips of the future fall where they may.
We could tell something momentous was afoot when the platoon sergeants started passing out metal toy crickets along with our hand grenades and ammo. Some major had figured we could identify each other in the dark by clicking our little crickets; we’d be the only ones who had them — the villagers were too poor to buy them, and there wasn’t anywhere to buy them anyway. So we took them and played with them like kids on Halloween, then threw them in the latrines. The dark was much too full of dread for such imbecility.
Just to let me know that military humility was a character trait to be cultivated by delusional teens like myself, the chief corpsman handed me an M-14, two magazines, and assigned me to lead the garbage detail. Five Marines and I rode down Highway One to the dump adjacent to the Da Nang airbase in the back of a truck filled with refuse from the battalion tent-city.
At the dump, we were swarmed by about fifty Vietnamese, fighting for any usable scrap. We had been warned that the peasants could use anything we threw away as a weapon against us (bury your cans), but we were outnumbered by the unarmed people yammering and banging at the sides of the truck. There was no way to stop them, but the Marines started yelling and shouting at them to get away from the truck so we could unload the garbage and leave. Just throwing away trash created a life-and-death dilemma.
The yelling got louder and more abusive, hands and arms reaching and grasping at the trash as we shoved it off the back of the truck. A Marine fired some shots into the air to quiet the crowd. They were only momentarily subdued. Thirty years of war and destitution had deadened their fear. Seeing that none of their crowd had been wounded by the rounds, they resumed their scrabble for C-ration tins and expended syringes, damaged military equipment and used bandages. The Marines were scooping the garbage off the back of the truck with their rifle butts while two men swung their rifles at the clamoring people to force their grasping hands away from the garbage as it fell. The Vietnamese faces were contorted with shame. If one’s whole body can be reduced to an anguished sob, that was how the Vietnamese men looked. The Vietnamese women were tearing at the Marines and at each other with desperate, greedy sorrow. The children, some wearing only shirts and cutting their feet on the open tins, were crying and rushing in at the edges of the growing pile like scavengers at a kill.
“Can we shoot these people, Doc?” a trooper asked, not joking.
“No, man. Let’s just get this done and get out of here,” I said, and the Marines kept scooping. One Marine had finally had enough, though, and struck a Vietnamese man in the forehead with a solid butt-stroke. Blood spurted from the gash, and the clamor died down.
The Marines finished clearing out the truck bed. The people milled through the garbage more quietly, hiding finds under their shirts or making little piles away from the main heap. I jumped down and took the injured man aside. I applied a small dressing to his forehead, securing it with adhesive tape. He needed antiseptic, and sutures to close the gash, but I had no antiseptic or even a clean place to work, so I could not stitch him closed. I got into my pack and produced a parcel sent from Mom. With all the wealth of the world at our command, all I had to offer was a cookie.
In the long nights alive with violent dread, we’d smoke and recount the feats and the names of the men we emulated. We’d listen to the clatter of rifles and grenades exploding somewhere off in the distant dark, entertaining the American spy fantasy, the schizoid mental retreat that would give you two lives, one of which you didn’t have to be responsible for.
There were plenty of examples around. We’d see the CIA spooks come out of the bush, haggard and lean, no insignia, strange weapons recently fired, arrogant, contemptuous of us mere grunts. Sometimes they would suddenly appear in a village we were sweeping, officer types, cool, in command, answerable to no one. They were always looking for someone, VC cadre, compliant elders, maybe one of us.
Like young Lieutenant Roman. The lieutenant was sure of what he saw. He was sure of his role in Vietnam, of the fact that the war was the ebb and flow of the constant future, the ultimate expression of man-spirit moving him with tireless grace through the Vietnam night. To prosecute the war in Vietnam was his destiny.
He had a reputation for being cool under fire, of being just gung-ho enough to inspire loyalty, and of being distant, like he lived deep within a tunnel clinging to the compact orb of his soul. He moved as if he was possessed of a final secret greater than any that could be delivered by any mere grunt mortal. In his presence you felt that he only wanted to use you, and you were grateful that he could find suitable use for you. The spook recruiters spotted him right away.
One night a team of CIA men took over one of our bunkers, and we saw them invite Roman into their kerosene lamplight. He stepped into the bunker, reaching for an offered hand. I heard one of them say, “Come in, Lieutenant. We know. . . .”
And Roman’s smile was the smile of completion, the smile of a man who had found heaven like he knew he always would. Black fear that keeps you awake for years, a well of lives ten million years deep — the real drug. You can see it burning back behind their eyes. Phantoms feeding on souls. Roman was home.
Nagy had my shirt front clutched in his trembling fist, pulling my ear to his mouth. Even though he was screaming, only a harsh whisper came out. Heat was pouring off his body, his breathing was labored, his eyes wild with fright.
From what I could make out, he was afraid that the medical men taking care of him considered him expendable, disposable, that they were going to kill him with neglect. He said he knew there was no ice in this fucking country except back at the Regimental Officer’s Club, and he was afraid that his brain was going to cook in its own juices, leaving him a child forever, or the fever would make him sterile, or maybe kill him. He hoped so. He was sweating profusely, and smelled of laterite, bile, and salt. Because of his nausea no one would give him any water, even to soothe his throat.
Nagy was from my platoon. He’d been suffering chills and fever for two days. I told him he was going to be all right, malaria was no big thing, I’d get him some water, that I would be there with him and for him as long as he needed me, I’d get him over to Regiment at first light if I had to hold a gun to someone’s head. The doctor and the two NCO corpsmen were standing off in the tent shadows watching us, evaluating me. They called me away from Nagy.
“Why can’t we give him some quinine? Let me wet him down. Start an IV, get some fluids into him,” I challenged.
“Just stay away from him, Doc. We’ve done everything we’re going to do for him. He just wants some sympathy,” one of the NCOs said, scratching at the scaly patch of psoriasis that had taken his hair.
“But he’s my man. You don’t leave your man.”
“You do as you are told.”
“You don’t have to do anything,” I said. “I’ll take care of him tonight, until we can get him to Regiment.”
The chief corpsman stepped into the argument, saying, “If you don’t leave him alone, he’ll just get to expect it. We don’t have time to mollycoddle this boy,” he said, even though Nagy was the only patient in the tent.
Nagy moaned, then he started screaming, warning that he would murder every single one of these rat-assed motherfuckers that wanted him to die. He grabbed me again, demanding that I give him a shot, put him under, knock him out, end his suffering, he didn’t care how. “Do me a huss,” he pleaded.
I slipped him a drink of halazone Kool-Aid from my canteen.
“Get away from him. He is not your patient,” the doctor ordered, and the corpsman dragged me away by the elbow.
“Get your gear and get back to your unit,” the chief warned. “Get out of here now.”
It was night; I’d have to find a rack in one of the hardbacks or sleep in a fighting hole on the perimeter. I left the medical tent disgusted, shaking with anger. The next time I asked about Nagy I was told he had been shipped over to Regiment a day later, and that he had died.
We were there because it was expected of us. All our lives we had been told that the fate of the free world, the pinnacle of our noblest selves, the very salvation of America, resided in our willingness to sacrifice our lives and bodies in the supreme unction of battle. We were raised to destroy the enemies of light. Now I can hardly feel the nation I’d have so willingly died for.
“Number one good pussy,” the cyclo driver said, pulling beside me as I wavered on a street corner, half my money gone into the pocket of a sharp, ten-year-old money-changer. I knew he’d shorted me but it was his country and his future and he deserved it. Enough piasters left for a short-time and a couple of beers. They were going to get everything we had anyway, it was just a question of how and when.
The cyclo driver weaved through the crowds, taking side streets for a few blocks until we were in the off-limits part of the city, me worrying about being picked up by the roving squads of MPs. Market stalls sold fatigues, clips of ammo, M-1, M-14, AK-47, grease for whoever could afford it, pistols, cases of C rations, whiskey, cigarettes, war fuel.
“You pay, you come,” the cyclo driver said, demanding his five dollars. Ride and throw, one price. I stepped out of the cyclo, paid the driver, who in turn paid another man waiting at the entrance of an alley. Several more Vietnamese men stood at the alley entrance, pistols under their short-sleeved shirts. The deal was made; the choice now was to go through with the transaction or walk away and lose the money.
From inside the alley I heard the muffled grunting of dozens of men and the labored breathing of dozens of women. Several Marines passed by me, looking ashamed and shy, zipping their trousers. A woman, her expression that of a mother exasperated with her children, grabbed me by the arm and led me into a vast warren of curtained stalls. Several more Marines passed me on their way out. Several more women followed after them, taking the next group of men by their arms and leading them into the stalls. Their eyes were twisted and furious, having absorbed thousands of war-boy climaxes, the energy of the thrusts mounting in them, no matter how often they muttered the mantra that it was just a job, just a dream of quick, nameless cocks.
The woman whose lot I’d drawn looked to be about thirty, or forty, it was hard to tell. She led me into her stall. On both sides I could hear other soldiers grunting, humping away, wheezing and sorrowful. She untied her kimono and lay back on an old French iron bed, a towel draped over its mattress, stained and spotted yellow. She hitched the kimono up under her back, spread her legs, and motioned for me to enter her. There was no point in undressing. She let out a sigh like a channel of hell had opened in her and she no longer cared enough to try to close it. If its consumptive energy spilled back into the men who fucked her, it was only what they were bringing to her. The flesh of her once-muscular thighs and hips sagged. Her breasts had been fondled and sucked by so many hands and mouths that stretch marks showed through dirty fingerprints. Her vagina was bruise purple, flaccid, oiled smooth with condom lubricant. With each thrust she let out small grunts of animal suffering. I finished as quickly as I could. Around me, from behind their own curtains, duplicating like one bed in a room full of dusty mirrors, other men and women were going through the same sexual assembly line.
“What happened to Wilson?” I asked the Marine as the gunnery sergeant moved off.
“Hate to tell you, Doc. He froze.”
It was the ultimate condemnation. Being each other’s lives, taking care of each other, made us tribal members. To abandon one’s duty to each other was to resign from the race of men. To freeze under fire was ultimately selfish and useless, and seen as a more reprehensible act than leading your men into an ambush. Scream, shit your pants, piss all over yourself, buckle and dig with your fingernails into the dust coating a rock, hide behind your best friend’s dead body — all forgivable if you rose up and got off a few rounds, if you looked around and helped your friends. It was your and their only chance. But to freeze was a declaration of total isolation. I snagged a couple of beers and went to talk to him.
“Mind if I pull up a rock?” I said, sitting next to him. I handed him a beer, but he refused it; clearly he didn’t think he deserved the reward.
“Pretty tough last night?” I said. But he wouldn’t respond. “You never know what you’re gonna do when the shit hits the fan,” implying forgiveness and acceptance, but he wasn’t buying. I could see him withdrawing further and further, mulling the incident into every angle of explanation and self-justification, blame and apology, but always coming back to the true fact of the matter: he froze. He didn’t even acknowledge my, “Get ’em next time, man. You’ll be all right,” as I was leaving him to himself. When he was sure I wasn’t looking, I saw him sob. It was the last time I saw him. With his dishonored self to haul he would be no good to the men around him on patrol. He was transferred back to Regiment.
Sometimes, in the long nights in the country of no maps, the battles for the Ashau Valley, Na Trang, Khe San, Hue, the hideous monstrosity of Tet, would whirl in from the future. When they did happen, you already knew. Even though your body wasn’t there anymore, you didn’t have to watch. The people fighting and being blown apart had already registered their souls in yours; as if all the horrible mayhem of the future that you were tied to was stored in the demon dreams of the generals and your own.
Big Bob Ortiz was cautioning me, “Watch out you don’t get no shit on your boot, Doc!” and we’d laugh like crazy. It was our joke, and we said it every time we saw each other walking out into the bush with an E-tool to dig a cat-hole. Bob Hope was coming, and we figured it was a joke he wouldn’t get, though we were also worried about what kind of a joke was going to be played on us. Bob had played to our fathers and uncles who had burned the Japanese out of the jungles and caves of Guadalcanal, had driven them plunging, dishonored and suicidal, into the sea off the cliffs of Saipan and Okinawa, had won Sarabatchi, had pushed the savage Bushido back to his island and cauterized his national resolve with a nuclear blast to be carried forever in his mutating genes.
Vietnam was a diminutive nation compared to so formidable an enemy as the Japanese, even the Chinese in Korea. There were relatively few of us there at that time, but the buildup was underway, and it seemed to me massively criminal to persecute the Vietnamese, corrupt or commie, just because we had the machinery to do so. Bob Hope cracking his jokes would legitimize the prosecution of the war, make our futures less and less tenable, would add ruin to the World. The crowd of happy Marines, laughing while Bob frolicked with untouchable sex-girls, photographed for hometown papers, would make a mad world seem normal, would sanction annihilation as divine will, like father like son, onward Christian soldiers.
Going to see Bob would be to deny the dignity of the engagement, the depth of the injury. So we didn’t go.
Nor did there ever seem a question of us losing the war. It was an American enterprise, righteous and bold, blessed by God. The power brought to bear was immense, the materiel copious — but not strong enough to crush the absorbing rage I saw in the eyes of the Viet Cong who was going to kill me.
Everyone who has been there still savors the memory of being there. You hold on to a little piece of the language, a souvenir, a P-38 can opener on a key chain, a photograph of a young and almost dangerous soldier — never a picture of how you looked when the fire was in the air or the grenades and mortar rounds were exploding around you and you were twisting and burrowing for your life.
Corporal Ramirez stepped through the thorny hedges of Le Mai like he had twenty or thirty times before, and the wire he tripped opened the C-ration can that released the unpinned grenade that blew off his right foot. He was thrown back through the hedge opening, lying on the ground, staring at the women and children lingering around the village well. The other men in the squad hit the deck, searching for cover. For a moment he looked stunned and disoriented, like he couldn’t believe that something so horrible could happen to him. Then he saw that his right leg was shredded below the knee; shake his leg as hard as he could, the foot refused to appear. His foot was in his boot, and his boot was somewhere out behind him in the tall grass beside the graveyard. It was smoldering and no one wanted to touch it. The shard of bone and blackened muscle showed the veins and arteries fused bloodless by the searing heat of the explosion. Two old women were watching from inside the ville, and Ramirez focused on them as the ones who had set the booby trap, or at least knew and had failed to warn him. He reached for his rifle and started screaming, “You fucking cunt bitches!” repeatedly, all the while trying to stand, to get up on his good foot, to be a man again.
Then his sergeant was kneeling beside him, pushing the rifle away from him, calming him, talking to him, saying, “Hey, man, you’re gonna be all right. Really man, take it easy, going home for sure,” he said.
“I’m gonna kill them fucking bitches!” Ramirez screamed, again reaching for the rifle, but the sergeant held it away from him.
“Let’s just worry about getting you out of here,” the sergeant said. “We’ll take care of the gooks later.” Then he yelled, “Corpsman up!” And while the rest of the men hid behind tiny knolls of dirt and grass in the event that the booby trap wasn’t just a random maiming but foreshadowed an attack, the women stood just out of range of the grenade, like they knew. The corpsman ran toward the gate in a crouch, his kit banging against his hip. A man was down, his whole purpose in being was to get to his man. The moment of human usefulness was at hand. He reached Ramirez quickly, and saw the corporal slipping into shock and incoherence.
Then the corpsman saw the wound. All of life demanded congruity, wholeness. To be wounded in combat, to be killed in combat where a man had a chance, was an honorable mortality. But a booby trap was insidious. It was retaliation for random mortar attacks, but up close: legs, balls, bowels, the message of humiliation so powerfully felt that the VC were willing to sacrifice their babies and children to deliver it to us, to leave their dead bodies in our wounds and souls when we went away.
“They fucked you up good, Corporal. No lie. But you ain’t gonna die. No more Vietnam for you,” the corpsman promised. Wrapping a battle dressing over the stump, he slipped a morphine styrette needle into the corporal’s shoulder. “It’ll stop hurting in a second, Ramirez. Stay awake, now. The chopper’ll be here any minute.” Turning to the sergeant, he said, “Call an emergency medevac. Do it now.” There was such conviction in his voice that the orders were followed immediately. Ramirez’s eyes were taking on dreamy morphine relief, his rage quieting, burrowing back into his deeper self to wait and gnaw and spring cynical and relentless upon a callow hometown. To Regiment to be stabilized, to Japan for surgical reduction, to some sleazy VA hospital for a wingtip retrofit.
Gone and gone again, clerking, computers, boozed to death, who knows?
Some men made a stretcher, and four of them carefully carried the corporal to the H-34 as it landed out in the paddies. Passing through the rotor wash and reaching the door, the men transferred him to a regulation stretcher the door gunner had tossed out. The gunner had seen all this many times before, though he couldn’t get the look of shock to leave his young face. And just as the chopper was about to take off, in some bizarre gesture to affirm the wholeness of the world, the corpsman approached with Ramirez’s helmet and handed it to the gunner. The gunner took it, then dropped it. In the helmet was Ramirez’s foot. The gunner stuffed it under one of the web seats and told the pilot to take off. After that we never saw the corporal again. I missed him.
A company of Marines sits very quietly in the tubular fuselage of a TransWorld 707, crossing the Pacific, heading for home, Japan, Alaska, California, heading for the land of the big PX, heading back to the World. But everyone is subdued, there isn’t much to say. We can’t even talk to each other because there is no framework on which to hang our experience, our experience not being the one we’d come to get. We are soaring through the stunning air, and I am remembering the woman I lay with the night before, and how I could no longer restrain myself in the name of health, and bending her to my mouth I drank deeply from the seminal traces of thousands of men before and thousands of men who would come after, each joining the milling throngs on their way to Vietnam to exercise their own tragedy on the Vietnamese people. I am trying to figure why we each and all went to Vietnam, and figure that it was to get back what we’d lost, the Kennedy spirit, the WW II spirit, our own mystic toil evidenced in the lives of the Vietnamese. The Vietnamese are now part of my blood, teaching from within their strength, their capacity for absorbing pain, absorbing one of our blows and rising to demand another, and another until the very soil of their existence is poisoned by our rage and we recoil in horror at our own capacity to injure, and still they come up mocking, grinning, aching for more, leaving each man his own obligation to reach in under the bloody battle dressing and seize the fractured soul and breathe life and light into it. The deepest human contract is mutual protection. And if we are all one life, then extend compassion to yourself, plant the garden, weave the artistry, heal the sick, build the harmony, add to the soul. Add, add, add to the soul.
On the street back home I saw two women wheeling a baby in a carriage. They were young and beautiful, and the baby was healthy, cooing happily in the comfort and protection of the two women. I approached the women, asking permission to look at the baby. It was the first round-eye baby I’d seen since coming back. In Vietnam the babies were sick or malnourished or had flies sucking at their eyes or had skin ulcers. Seeing that healthy new baby was an assurance of well-being, of continuing life.
But there must have been something about me, the mad faraway treeline stare that hadn’t yet shown up on the street in the World yet. The baby’s mother hovered over the child, guarding it against me though I’d done nothing threatening. It was like I had baby-killer stamped all over me. It was the worst injury I sustained. I’d been an American soldier. In my love I would have died for them.