Military Personnel Reflect on the War
Larry Heinemann served in the U.S. Army in Vietnam in 1967-68. He has published three novels, including Paco's Story which won the National Book Award. His short stories and nonfiction have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Harper's, Playboy, TriQuarterly, and numerous other magazines and journals. He has read, lectured, and taught at writers' workshops, universities, and veterans' gatherings in the U.S., Vietnam, England, China, and the former Soviet Union. Mr. Heinemann has also written a nonfiction book about train travel in contemporary Vietnam.
The Nui Ba Den
I have no pleasing memories of my war year, with one singular exception. The mountain. The Nui Ba Den.
I was drafted into the Army in 1966 and served with the 25th Division in the middle of what the French called Cochin China, assigned to a mechanized infantry battalion. We rode armored personnel carriers. A.P.C.s; "tracks," we called them. We generally rode roughshod, armed to the teeth, through the countryside around Cu Chi and Dau Tieng, Trang Bang and Gau Da Ha and Tay Ninh, the Ho Bo and Bo Loi Woods. To make a long story short, we were not pleasant people and the war was not a pleasant business. I have no doubt we radicalized more southern Vietnamese to Ho chi Minh's national revolution than we "saved."
The part of the world we fought in is as flat as the back of your hand. And above it stands the Nui Ba Den, 996 meters high, solid stone, and visible from almost any place, as if Mount McKinley were set in the middle of Kansas. On summer days, the very top of the mountain was enwrapped with a bit of stone-white cloud, like a flat-brimmed, fraying hat.
I always tried to take the last night guard, from three or four in the morning until breakfast. Night watches were mostly pathetically interminable reveries. And there in the moonlight the Nui Ba Den would be, like a fuzzy apparition. We watched in the darkness as processions of Viet Cong made their way up and around the mountain, each man carrying a tiny perfume bottle lamp, each light not much more than the flame of a birthday candle. The mountain seemed to shimmer at such times.
And then there were those few mad, murderous nights of fighting -- "bitter fighting," as historians call it. My life's everlasting night horrors; the worst nights of my life. The killing would cease only when the sun rose, the smoke cleared, and the dew burned away. You looked up and there was nothing but meat and a wood line that looked like ruined drapes. And then you looked out across the way, and there, rising sharply above everything, was the Nui Ba Den.
Sitting guard in that last, long hour before dawn, the mountain would cut a clean silhouette from the scrub of dirty dark; soon a blunt, shadowy brunswick green; then a peculiar gray-green as the light gathered above us. The mountain was textured with the rubble of mold-stained boulders and thick stands of timber; then a transparent, seedling green; the sky all but blue. Then -- boom -- the sun rose, the world all color, and there it would be, the Nui Ba Den, vivid and entire. The green of all green.
Since coming home from the war, I have made several trips back to Vietnam, and heard a number of legends about the mountain -- all antique.
It is named for a woman named Ba Den; "ba" being a mode of respectful address to signify a matron over 40 -- "ma'am." One story goes that Ba Den's husband was killed in one of the many wars of Vietnamese history; she so grieved his loss that she climbed the mountain to be as close to heaven as she could manage, then committed suicide. Another tells that Ba Den and her soldier-husband lived at the foot of the mountain; while her husband was away fighting she was captured, raped many times, and died of shame. A third story says that she was a devout older woman, a stranger to the people who lived there, but remarkable for her spiritual simplicity. Ba Den, it is said, visited the mountain to pray and meditate.
The story I favor is this: the woman Ba Den was to marry a soldier, but on her wedding day her husband-to-be was called away to war and never returned. Yet Ba Den waited, cried so hard and long that her family thought she would lose the sight of her eyes, and, as the legend has it, she became the mountain. A pagoda shrine was built to the memory of her faithfulness and devotion.
The Nui Ba Den has always loomed large in my memory of the war; in my 30 years of dreams and nightmares; in my imagination and my writing about that time of my life. Nowadays when I visit, I ride up highway 22 toward Tay Ninh, and just north of Gau Da Ha, I see her. The Nui Ba Den, the widow who waits for her soldier's return, rises into view, and I feel I have come home.
Albert French was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on July 5, 1943. After graduating from high school, he joined the U.S. Marine Corps in January of 1963. In 1965, he served as an infantryman with Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment in Chu Lia, Vietnam. Following his Marine service, Mr. French became a photo journalist and magazine publisher, then a writer. He is the author of critically acclaimed books, including the novels Billy (Chivers, 1994) and Holly (Viking Press, 1995) and the memoir Patches of Fire: A Story of War and Redemption (Anchor Books, 1997), which is based on his experiences during and after the Vietnam War. Mr. French lives in Pittsburgh.
Time crawled through the days and nights like a snake you couldn't see. Then sometimes you could see its head, its tail. Sometimes you could see it all; it could coil, hiss, spring at you, before you knew what you saw. But you'd feel its bite, then its poison would sting you.
Just sitting for a moment could be everything, precious time you didn't want to pass. Sitting on the sand bags, staring out into the night, watching the stars could be precious moments, before you looked down into the dark, watched it creep about, and you'd think about the nights gone by when fires burned, somebody screamed until they died.
Sitting back in the tent area could be a good time. Easy talk could take you everyplace, back home. It could take you to parties, warm beds and long, soft hair. Laughter could take you further than talk; laughter could take you away from yourself. It could make those fears, death thoughts you had in your mind go away. It could change it, until it became a billion little pieces of things that didn't make a difference.
Seconds could change time forever, stick it in your face, make you look at it, make you look at some guy's face. He's dead, you don't want to see him, see yourself lookin' at him and seein' you layin' there. Blood and everything else that flows is pourin' out of him. Flies are already gettin' stuck in the blood. But you would have to move on, take more steps. Time would walk with you, wait with you, then run off screamin' and leavin' you alone and stuck with your own fears. You don't give a damn about the time, let it run away. It don't mean anything here anyway, you're dead already. You been dead as soon as you got here. You don't want to say it, you just want to pretend your alive, still livin'.
The rain could become a part of the time, nighttime, daytime. It could come and not go away. It could make you a part of it, wet and cold just like it. It could fall on your face, keep fallin' in your mind, make you hear it all of the time. You're tryin' to see through it, you got to know what's comin', got to see where you're going. You want it to stop so you can clean your rifle off, get dry, but you know it ain't goin' nowhere. You got to keep going, wadin' through its mud and floodin' waters. Some snake is floatin' by, going the other way. It's wet, just like you. It's going where it doesn't want to go. Or maybe it's going home. You know you're not.
God can sneak up on you anytime, then leave quickly. Most of the time, he comes at night when you're alone in your hole. He can just be there, you can look his way, talk, whisper to him. You can ask him why, why, why. Sometimes, you won't talk to him. You don't want him close to you, messin' with your head. Things ain't never fair. Everything is upside down, everybody can get killed. Them little crosses hangin' around dead necks, didn't save a damn thing. Lewis was always readin' that black book, always crossin' his heart so fast you thought he was havin' a fit. The flies got in all his blood. That little girl was runnin' for her life, scared as hell. She couldn't have been anything else except a child of somebody's God. If God wanted to reach down and get her, it didn't have to be with that damn automatic. Makin' her cry.
Maybe God ain't here, maybe you're just talkin' to yourself, thinkin' he's here. Maybe when he gets here, he won't sneak up on you, get in your head and see you like this stuff sometimes. Like changing things forever, like the cold rains and dark nights, like hiding them, then sneakin' out and killing somebody forever. Maybe God stayed in the states, stuck on a penny. Maybe he's coming over when he hears about this stuff. Maybe he's going to let his angels sing at night, dance in the day. Maybe when he gets here, he'll put things back together, open up some bodybags and let guys live again. Maybe he'll let that little girl go play, sing, dance, love one day and have babies. Please hurry, God.
I remember one night, perhaps I had gone too far. Maybe God didn't want me to go no further, wanted me to live, tell about it, write about what he had to watch us do. I know now he cried, it was never raindrops fallin'. No, there ain't that much rain to ever fall.
I was so close to death, I could smell its ugly breath. A bullet had gone through my throat. I was standing in the dark, looking across the rice paddy. We were pulling back, and I was asking this guy if anyone was left back there. I couldn't see anyone, couldn't find my friends. The only thing I could see was patches of fire burning in the far tree line. This guy turned and looked back too, then turned to me and muttered only the dead. I turned, pulled back, came back. But I brought the time with me and turned it into words that will hopefully live forever.
David Hackworth enlisted in the Merchant Marines at age 14 and the U.S. Army at 15. He spent almost 26 years in the Army, over seven of them in combat theaters. After five years in Vietnam, Hackworth, then the Army's youngest colonel, spoke out on national television, saying, "This is a bad war... it can't be won. We need to get out." Hackworth earned numerous decorations, including eight Purple Hearts and the United Nations Medal for Peace, given for his anti-nuclear work in Australia.
He has been a regular guest on national radio and TV shows, and from 1990 to the end of 1996, he was Newsweek's contributing editor for defense. Hackworth's books include The Vietnam Primer, the international best seller About Face, and Hazardous Duty.
He who can modify his tactics in relation to his opponent, and thereby succeed in winning, may be called a heaven-born captain. — Sun Tzu
In the spring of 1965, America began to dispatch a great conventional army to Vietnam. Pound for pound those airmen, marines, sailors and soldiers were collectively the finest warriors we had ever sent to war. In the beginning, they were highly trained regular volunteers, who had long been indoctrinated to kill a "Commie for Mommy."
But the Americans were trained to fight the Soviet Union. Their doctrine, tactics and equipment were designed to engage a Communist enemy on a European battlefield, not an Asian opponent in the jungle. The training and mindset of their generals and admirals were to fight great air, land and sea battles not unlike those that brought us victory in World War II.
There was another problem. Their Vietnamese opponent refused to be sucked into a war of attrition or to fight an American style war. He had over the centuries defeated the Chinese, Japanese and the French not by fighting by conventional rules, but by following the strategic and tactical doctrine of Sun Tzu, written two and a half thousand years before: enemy attacks, we retreat; enemy digs in, we harass; enemy exhausted, we attack; enemy retreats, we pursue.
For eight years, the powerful U.S. war machine mostly attacked shadows and mainly bombed an invisible enemy. It was seldom able to lock its opponent into the much sought-after classical big battle, where it could bring to bear its overwhelming firepower and technological advantage over its Third World foe. The enemy fought battle for battle mainly on his terms and almost always played the tune. He acted, we reacted. When the fight was over he danced away to fight another day, almost always leaving the ground bloody from American casualties. He took his lumps too, but they weren't shown on the Vietnamese nightly TV news. And he was prepared to pay any human price to wear down his American opponent.
Sadly, from "The Iron Triangle" to "Hamburger Hill" -- always in search of the big battle, the big victory, the big knockout -- the American leadership never learned. What worked in World War II was the standard. In their haste to recreate a Guadalcanal or a Normandy KO, the top brass failed the basic lessons of war-fighting: to understand your enemy and know cold the nature of the war.
For eight years, America fought the same battles on the same terrain using the same obsolete tactics. There was no clear cut military plan (The Objective, a principle of War), nor was there an institutional memory. Front line unit leaders were shifted every few months and the division and corps commanders -- whose tenure was considerably longer -- were totally out of touch with what went on down at the pointy end of the bayonet. The mistakes that were made in 1965 were repeated each year, as each annual crop of American cannon fodder was fed unto the field until 1973, when we withdrew.
The valiant men with the rifle squads, platoons and companies well understood the enemy's game. How he would dart in, make them bleed and run away. How he was into making the Second Vietnamese War a protracted affair that would frustrate America's leaders and wear down the American people, who from the beginning of the conflict questioned the morality of the war, wondered how our country's national security was even remotely at risk in the far away jungles of South East Asia, and saw the wrongheadedness of our being there.
Virtually no senior commanders spent time with the grunts to learn the true nature of the war. Most were isolated from the fighting men -- not unlike the French, British and German senior brass of World War I. Similarly, they lived in royal comfort, complete with white-coated servants and sparkling China-set tables, safely away from the killing fields. When a battle did rage, they whirled above it in helicopters making decisions that may have worked in another war, but didn't make sense to the men on the ground. These sky-borne leaders became bitterly known to the men who did the dying as "The Great Squad Leaders in the Sky."
The Vietnam War was a disaster from its bad beginning until its tragic end. It killed four million Vietnamese and over 58,000 Americans. Millions more, Vietnamese and Americans, were wounded by shell or shock and the war came close to ripping our country asunder. With the exception of the Civil War, no war wrought such long range damage to the American soul.
Did our military establishment learn from the tragic lesson of Vietnam? The mistakes were all buried. No autopsy was conducted. In 1993, in Somalia, the U.S. Army made exactly the same mistakes that were made in Vietnam. Again, mainly young Americans paid the supreme sacrifice.
Unless we learn from the past we will again face dark days ahead.
W. D. Ehrhart
W. D. Ehrhart served three years in the Marine Corps, including thirteen months in Vietnam (1967-68) with 1st Battalion, 1st Marines, receiving the Purple Heart, two Presidential Unit Citations, and promotion to sergeant. He later became active with Vietnam Veterans Against the War. A writer, poet and lecturer, he lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, with his wife and daughter. His many books of prose and poetry include Vietnam-Perkasie, The Distance We Travel, and Carrying the Darkness.
I first began to consider joining the Marines in the late fall of 1965, soon after the battle of the Ia Drang Valley, an engagement which confirmed for the first time the presence of North Vietnamese regular army troops in South Vietnam. As a senior in high school, I was then in the midst of applying to colleges, and within four months I would be accepted at four of them, but throughout that winter and into the spring of 1966, I kept coming back to the thought of delaying college long enough to serve my country. A few years earlier, I'd written on the cover of my school notebook John Kennedy's clarion call: "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country. " Now I had my chance to answer that challenge.
When I was nine, the Communist Soviet Union had launched into orbit around the earth Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, demonstrating their potential ability also to launch atomic missiles at the United States. As a ten-year-old, I had cowered beneath my desk at school during nuclear bomb drills, waiting for the Russians to attack us. Over the next few years, the U.S.S.R. and its evil minions had built the Berlin wall, spawned Communist insurgency in Laos, and tried to put nuclear missiles in Cuba. I had watched on television as Soviet premier Nikita Krushchev pounded his shoe on the podium at the United Nations General Assembly, shouting, "We will bury you!"
Kennedy had said we would bear any burden and pay any price to prevent that from happening. And then Kennedy was dead, and a few days later I had stood for eight hours in freezing cold just to get a glimpse of his casket lying in state beneath the Capitol dome, and when I saw it, I had cried. A year later, during the 1964 presidential election, I rode around the streets of Perkasie, Pennsylvania, on the back of a flatbed truck singing Barry Goldwater campaign songs because I felt that Lyndon Johnson was too soft on communism. Moscow's communist henchmen were by this time clearly escalating their drive to conquer the free people of South Vietnam, yet Johnson seemed afraid to confront them with anything more than words.
To my dismay, Johnson won the election, but I fully supported him in 1965 when he began the systematic bombing of North Vietnam, sent the Marines into South Vietnam, and finally ordered the military to switch from a defensive posture to the offensive mission of seeking out and destroying the Viet Cong. "If we do not stop the Communists in Vietnam, " Johnson said, "we will one day have to fight them on the sands of Waikiki." Johnson was finally catching on, I thought, and by March 1966 my own mind was made up: college could wait. My country needed me now. I would join the Marines.
And it had to be the Marines. That was never in question. "The Marine Corps Builds Men." That was the recruiting slogan back then, and I wanted to be a man. More than that: I wanted to be a hero, and Marines were heroes almost by definition. The Halls of Montezuma. Belleau Wood. Guadalcanal. The Chosin Reservoir. And what in the world looked sharper than that U.S. Marine Corps dress blue uniform? Yes, indeed, if I was going, I was going as a Marine.
My parents were none too keen on the idea. It wasn't that they had any political or moral objections to the war, but only a question of who would want their child to go to war when he could go to college instead? But our long and sometimes heated discussions finally ended when I blurted out, "Is this the way you raised me? To let other mothers' sons fight America's wars? " And of course, that was not the way my parents had raised me, and that had ended all discussion. I left for boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina, in June 1966, nine days after I graduated from high school. At the time, I did not even possess a draft card because, at 17, I was not yet old enough to register with Selective Service.
Seven months later I arrived in Vietnam, where everything I thought I knew about the war in particular, and the world in general, came head-on smack up against reality. But that's another story.