Soldiers lie whenever they talk too much about their battles: the fear, the heroism, the deaths. They lie because the mother who listens to her soldier-son is led to think that every day is battle day. Not true, of course.
In Vietnam — in nearly every division except the war-weary 101st Airborne and 25th Infantry — the foot-soldier's main foes are trench foot, blisters, heat exhaustion and the damnable boredom that comes from having nothing to do but slap mosquitoes and wonder when Nixon will stop playing pussyfoot and pull your valuable behind out of a war that, sooner or later, we'll be pulled out of anyway. Boredom — human vegetation — that's the real enemy.
In a way it's a scandal. There are plenty of captains and lieutenants who see it is futile to commit more lives to a war that's nearly ended; or, if not ended, to a war that will not be won. They take their troops, their friends, up to the mountains, find a good defensive position and sit around for a week or two, not giving a short-timer's damn if they find Charlie or not. In fact, they and their men hope the enemy is a million miles away.
But in another sense, it is terrific that the lower-elite of today's Action Army sees the sane way out of the bind. It's a rare company commander and much rarer platoon leader who knowingly leads his men into a hot spot, not if he can smoothly avoid it.
So one day recently we sat atop a mountain, felt safe, and were bored.
The first day, the coolest day of them all, was pretty good. Re-supply came early, the choppers dropping off cold milk, beef sandwiches, cold soda and beer, mail and a few newspapers. The mail and newspapers and liquids satisfied even the jumpiest soldier.
About noon the next day, things got worse. It rained. A heavy, four-hour, monsoon rain right in the middle of the dry season. So we lay in leaky hooches and counted leeches. My buddy from the Bronx wrote a letter to his girl.
"How do you spell, uh, 'romantic'?" I spelled the word best I could. "How do you spell 'curvaceous'?" I had a harder time with that one but pretty soon it looked right.
My buddy is of Puerto Rican vintage and has an ethnically fascinating way with the English language, even if spelling sometimes comes hard, and I wanted to see what he wrote on that wet day.
"Sorry, Teem (my name), but zat's impossible. I say some nice sexy tings dat ... well ... maybe you not read happy." The kid from the Bronx thinks he's older and wiser than me. So he seals it all up in a USO envelope and wrote Free in the upper righthand corner and let it fall in the mud where it probably belonged in the first place. It was an hour out of the way, an hour closer to going home.
Then the next day it got hot. Really hot. Hot like it gets hot in Vietnam, where — when the sun shines hard — it is the hottest place on Earth. The elephant grass holds the heat, bunching it up around you, scenting it like a perfumed fire, and it is simply impossible to lie around in that grass, feeling the flies and ants feasting on your well-roasted flesh, and play gin rummy with your captain. And win. It cannot be done. So you stand up, hoping for a breeze, and your feet ache. You walked to the top of the mountain yesterday, and it was a high mountain, no kidding.
When night came, the temperature got better. I sat on guard, not seeing much because the night was black. I thought a little about the time I dumped Sadie Miller in the Country Club pool, almost drowning her, and then making up for it by taking her to the drive-in movie, after which I found out that she was a little vindictive herself.
I thought about all the ways I could have shirked Vietnam. I cursed myself for not having told the Universal Draft Board, in all their petty omnipotence: "No! No thank you, friends and neighbors who smile and stab patriotically, but this war is not one I will fight." I felt around the edge of the foxhole for the Claymore firing devices. They have a springy, rubbery feel. One squeeze on the black lever and you blow away everything in front of you. A Claymore is something to make you feel safer as you think at night.
The third day on the mountain was hot and so were the fourth and fifth. We strung up our ponchos to make sunshades. No one kept watch. Everyone lay under their hooch, waiting for re-supply. When the stuff came in, the whole unit clustered around the cold drinks and fresh oranges, sort of aware that Charlie could blow them back to the world if he were in the vicinity, but not really caring. It was so hot and the beer so close.
The sixth day the captain led us off the mountain. He has a schedule to meet, so we ran and slipped down the mountain and soon he had us in a village. We rested. We drank the water that came from one of the coldest wells in Vietnam. The villagers washed our backs. The kids begged for C-rations, which we all dispersed with relief. (Turkey Loaf and Pork Slices get tiresome after a few months.) The girl-sans fanned us and flirted while their brothers sold us Pepsi at 50 cents a crack. Everybody was happy, and the soldiers were clean, and the village people were getting rich.
Then Kid found an AK-44 rifle in the bushes. That changed everything. Kid showed it to me and said, "Ha! A lil' toy! This here's why I'm glad I'm getting short." The captain and his lieutenants got angry. They thought the villagers liked us and were happy and pacified. It was near dark when Kid found the rifle, so the officers has us round up three male prisoners as fast as we could. They were all old men, one of them about ready to die. He had a long white goatee that reminded me of the one Ho Chi Minh wears, so I suppose that was incriminating.
The lieutenants tied the old men up. The old, old man they dropped onto the ground, near where I was going to sleep. The other two they beat up. The third platoon leader gave them the roughest job. "Where are the rest of the weapons?" The old men couldn't even understand him. "We'll burn the village if you don't show us more weapons!" The old men were worried about their cuts and blood. They might have known where some guns were. But then the VC would beat them. Might as well be the foreigners, the GIs, as their own people beating them. Tell or don't tell: how do they win?
The old men groaned at night. There were rags in their mouths and the medic had taped the rags in place. They were tied to three separate trees, maybe five meters apart, and the officers and their radio operators slept in a circle around the prisoners. I had watch at two that morning and gave them water. They were pleased to get the water, muttering "thank you" in English, but they complained when I had to put the gags back in place. I knew I hadn't helped any when I watched them, still standing there as they did all night, old men, trying to breathe through rags on a hot night, and here I was waking up my replacement and going to sleep.
Saddest part, in a way, was when the officers let them go the next morning, not a word said in apology or explanation. The old men said "thank you," very politely, and went to their houses.
Each day comes on and goes away pretty much like the day before it and the one to follow: slow, very hot with lots of sweat, long walks with heavy packs. Nothing much ever happens out of the ordinary. You just walk and walk and walk. Or sit on the same patch of clay and weed forever, looking forward to the next breeze, the next cold well or river, the next re-supply chopper that brings in the Coke and mail. Add up 360 of those kind of days, tack on about five days when brutal things happen and everybody acts like idiots, and that's how I see Vietnam.