A War Revisited / "Last thoughts on a war"
Published 1:02 am, Friday, July 2, 2010
... along the brittle treacherous bright streets of memory
comes my heart, singing like an idiot, whispering like a drunken man
who (at a certain corner suddenly) meets the tall policeman
of my mind.
Memory -- as I interpret Cummings' words -- always offers up the truth no matter how you try to spin it or pretty it up. And I know all about the "tall policeman of my mind" because he's always there to remind me of the real truth of any event that I've experienced, especially during my time in Vietnam.
But trying to sum up 23 months of the most remarkable period in my life in a few hundred words is like trying to cram 50 pounds of sand into a 10-pound bag. Bloody impossible! Here are a few grains of sand that left an indelible mark:
It's an old aphorism among war correspondents, but truer words were never spoken: I went to cover a war but the war covered me.
In Vietnam, there was no guidebook for green correspondents about how to cover the war and survive. With some luck and common sense, you picked up the basic rules of the road on the job -- by watching and imitating other correspondents in the field.
The important ones were: never walk close to the point or front of a patrol -- in an ambush, the point man is the first to die -- and at the first sound of gunfire, make love to the ground wherever you happened to be. And of course, don't conduct an interview in the middle of a firefight. Your subject has a lot more to think about than answering your dumb questions.
In the beginning, fear became your friend; a gut-check on reality. At the end of your tour, you worried that you weren't fearful enough. A fellow correspondent once told me, "When you stop feeling afraid, you've been here too long, and it's time to leave."
If you stayed in Vietnam long enough, rode too many choppers, survived too many hot LZs, saw too many firefights, and too many dead GIs, fear became irrelevant and then you were operating on pure luck. A dangerous place to be as evidenced by the 73 journalists and 135 photographers who died there.
Despite it all, I secretly enjoyed the adrenaline rush that came with jumping out of a helicopter under enemy fire. As the radio announcer at Armed Forces Radio, Saigon, was fond of saying, "The next song is dedicated to all you guys out there groovin' on the danger..."
Vietnam as been described as days of boredom punctuated by moments of terror, but there was also humor, wisdom, and camaraderie wherever you went in the field. And superstition. GIs carried everything to bring them luck from rabbit feet and snapshots of their mothers, wives and girlfriends to panties, bras, and miniature versions of the St. James Bible. And many carried a single bullet on a chain -- the one with their name on it.
One Marine that I met stepped on a booby-trapped mine that failed to explode. For the remaining six months on his tour, he refused to change his lucky green socks despite a smell that kept his buddies awake at night and a direct order to do so, which eventually cost him two stripes.
GIs also carried last letters to love ones they hoped would never have to be opened. The units always treated those letters as if they were sacred, making sure that they always found their way to the next of kin.
One question that most correspondents were always asked by the troops in the field was: "Hey, man, who did you piss off to get stuck with this job?" When I told them I volunteered for it, most GIs rolled their eyes and shook their heads. The usual reply: "There's not enough money in the world to make me come to Nam." I didn't bother to tell them my salary was not much higher than theirs. I do remember one GI's ironic response:
"Well, man, I'm sure glad to hear that being crazy is no disqualification for the job."
Vietnam was a target-rich opportunity for all kinds of stories from the dramatic to the sublime and where courage among the troops was commonplace. During a battle involving a Fourth Infantry Division company near the Cambodian border, I heard a fragmented message over the battalion radio net from a platoon being overrun by a company of North Vietnamese regulars.
The unit's radio operator, one of the last men still alive, gave his location and status report to the battalion commander. His last words, spoken with extraordinary calm: "Charger, Charger, I'm dying ... Too late, too late ..." Charger was the code name of the battalion commander. Even though his survival was in doubt, the radio operator maintained communications security and did not call the commander by name.
Other memories of the war and its walking wounded:
"¢ Down in the Mekong Delta with the Ninth Infantry Division in June, 1967, I asked a young sergeant if we were winning the war. His answer: "Idda know. But one thing seems pretty clear: Never pick a fight with someone for whom death is a promotion."
"¢ I met a 19-year-old sailor named Jack in a bar in Hong Kong on R&R. When I asked him what unit he was with back in the Zone, he laughed and said, "If I told you, I'd have to kill you." He was only half-joking, He was a Navy SEAL on his third tour in Nam and part of a classified task force called Operation Phoenix. Media reports later revealed it was a CIA operation to assassinate Viet Cong "sympathizers" and local politicians deemed friendly to the Viet Cong. He told me he had 20 confirmed kills. At first, I thought his tales were war stories fueled with alcohol, but there was something in his eyes -- a bottomless, lifeless blue -- that gave me the feeling his words were closer to the truth than I wanted to believe. For Jack and other soldiers like him, the war would never end.
"¢ Jim was a Marine machine gunner in Vietnam in I Corps. He used to make fun of a guy named Schmidt in his unit, a guy with Coke-bottle lenses for glasses and a face only a mother could love. And then one day in a blink of an eye, Schmidt stepped on a mine, taking off both legs and ripping out one eye. "All of sudden he was Smitty, a buddy," said Jim, "Don't worry, Smitty, you'll be fine. Send us a case of cold beer when you get stateside." It was as if someone had struck a match in the darkness of Jim's mind. "If I learned one thing in the Nam," he said, "it was that underneath everything, we are all human beings, with flaws and dreams and the need to be loved and respected."
Returning to Vietnam was a deep, profound, and cleansing experience for me, a chance to close the circle on memories of friends lost doing what they loved, and of soldiers and Marines who died doing their duty -- more than 58,000 of them, To what end I don't really know.
What I found there surprised me, angered me and saddened me. But mostly the trip lightened my psychic load that I humped these 40-some years looking for a place to unload it. For me it was like going to a long overdue wake to pay my respects. On the last night of the reunion of journalists, we laughed, reminisced, drank a toast to absent friends and colleagues, and went on our way, each left with private memories to treasure and deal with.
No matter how long we live, we will always talk about the bad old days of the war when friends died and colleagues went missing, but we will remember the good days, too. The ones that made you feel alive, and young and ready for one more firefight or hot LZ followed by a shower and a cold beer. A time in our lives that will never be equaled, repeated or understood. You had to be there!.
To borrow a passage from my friend and colleague, Mike Herr, and his epic book, Dispatches, --¦ no moves left for me at all but to write down some few last words and make the dispersion -- Vietnam, Vietnam, Vietnam, we've all been there ..."
Robert Stokes, a Westport resident, covered the war in Vietnam for nearly two years in l967 and l968, first as a freelance journalist, and then as permanent staff for Newsweek magazine He later joined Life magazine, where he served as an associate editor and covered the Attica State Prison riot in 1971. In 1980, Dell published Stokes' first novel, Walking Wounded, which was based on his war experiences.