My dad was an Army enlisted man, and fought in Vietnam twice, Korea, and took tours in Thailand and Germany. Back in the late 1960’s, the Army base near here decided to give us dependents a look at what our fathers (or for the mothers, husbands) were facing over in Vietnam, so they built a “Vietnamese Village”, then invited all of us to come watch them raid it and take it over. I’ll never forget that day – it was interesting and exciting for me, a young child of about 8.

So off we go, deep to the back of the base, somewhere in the training area. And there it is, incongruously nestled amoung the towering pines: The Vietnamese Village.

Actually, we didn’t get to ‘see’ the village at first – all the dependents had to walk a trail to the small set of bleachers they had set up near the village so we could take a first hand look at how this military operation was supposed to go. I remember quite clearly as we were walking along my mother nearly stepping on a GI who had hidden himself, right there next to the path, buried deep in the pine straw. It surprised her, he smiled and motioned for us to go on.

When we came to the village, it was exactly what you would expect a Vietnamese village to look like: frond huts, a couple ‘towers’ built out of wood, and a flimsy wooden wall surrounding it. These walls very well may have been built out of bamboo (consulting my memory here: it sure looks like bamboo), and the village was protected by a single double gate. Being a small child I know things looked bigger (and again consulting memory, measuring the GI’s vs. the wall) – I think it must have been about twelve feet high.

The commander came on the PA system and gave a rambling description of the village, the types of booby traps the enemy would often use (while soldiers came forward, showing the various booby-traps – grenades in tin cans, punji stakes, etc.). I was just bored, watching and waiting for the real attack to begin.

Now I wasn’t ignorant of the war – not by a long shot. We’d sit every night in front of the TV, watching Walter Cronkite give out the latest war news. We’d stare at the black and white footage (because even if it was color, all we had was a black and white TV) – always hoping to catch a glimpse of my dad (though we never did). And then they would roll the names of the dead and missing in action down the screen – and despite not being able to read, I could sense my mom tensing and reading every name on the list, hoping and praying that her husband was not on it. So I understand all too well the spouses and children in today’s modern world, watching and praying during the Iraqi (and soon to be Afghanistan) wars, hoping for a glimpse of their loved ones, and hoping and praying that they won’t be listed among the injured, killed, or missing – and my heart goes out to them. I know how agonizing that process can be.

Anyway, back to the village. The action starts with gunfire going off behind us, targeting the people in the towers. These are GI’s dressed in the ‘black pajamas’ that the infamous Vietnamese soldiers wore. They grab their chests dramatically, one leaning over the edge, another actually taking the fall. (Couldn’t of been too far; these towers were only slightly higher than the pointed frond tops of the huts.) We gasp. More machine gun fire, then a couple of GI’s run up to the gate and place some kind of explosives on it, and then dart away. We watch in anticipation; then “BOOM!”. Big cloud of white-gray smoke, and the GI’s rush back, pulling the now leaning gates away from the wall. More machinegun fire. We watch as the GI’s, rushing forward in teams of two or three, ‘infiltrate” the village, going from hut to hut, shooting within. I specifically remember a “Vietcong” was hidden underneath the fronds on the top of one of the huts; we never saw him until he rose up, the fronds like a trapdoor, and began firing at the GI’s. The GI’s “kill” him. He collapses across the top of the hut. Then they race around the village, ‘securing’ the location. Finally, as they finish this exercise – it took all of maybe fifteen, twenty minutes – a tremendous BOOM! goes off behind us, the women scream, and a split second later hunreds of BB’s fall all over us like metal rain. “That,” the commander firmly explains, “was a Claymore.” I was suitably impressed.

But the thing that I came away from, as we walked away from this demonstration, was how tricky the enemy was – hiding beneath the fronds. How much they looked like “us” (of course, they were GI’s dressed up as the enemy, so it makes sense.) The friendliness of the GI’s I saw laying in wait in the woods – some would look up at us, smile and wave, as if they had all the courage in the world. And how difficult this war must be, with the enemy hiding almost anywhere – looking like just anyone – and the violence of battle. I fell in love with the scent of burning gunpowder then and there; had no fear at any time – and knew that this was something I was meant to do: be a little soldier for my dad, who was so far, far away, and kill the enemy with a vicious hand.

(and adding here, in 2011: Yeah, and we felt a little bit ‘perturbed’ by the fact that our dad was ‘over there’, meaning he could get killed at any minute and any time – a hard thing for any little boy (or child, for that matter) – to know. And yeah, I can still feel the dread in ‘that thing’, meaning that little child of mine.)

Looking at war now – yeah, some things have changed. The weapons are more accurate, the enemy more cunning. They blend with their local population so well you can never tell friend from foe. That much hasn’t changed. And the difficulties of war are made even more difficult now by the politics they play. People often don’t understand how war is; they think it’s supposed to be “clean” and well organized. They think bystanders and civilians should NEVER be involved. And I understand that. But the gritty truth and reality is: when you are faced with a potential enemy, and that enemy disappears into a crowd – what are you going to do? Let him? Let him stand there and kill the people who are tighter than brothers to you? Maybe even kill you — just to avoid a ‘political incident’? Even back then it was a thorny dilemma, and so it will always remain.

I went on to join the Marine Corps, to serve and protect my country. Not because I was required — like so many things I’ve done in my life, I had a lot of reasons; but also because it was the right thing to do. This wasn’t long after Vietnam, and we were trained to kill viciously, sometimes without discrimination. And I learned: war is a vicious, nasty thing. There is no “good” to it. The end story is written – and justified by the victors. I remember Lt. William Calley; when he got tried down here. I feel sad for him, but how well I understand his actions — so very well. I remember seeing the last of the known POW’s fly in. I remember a lot of things about that war, and how the soldiers were treated – and mistreated. I remember that we didn’t advertise our presence too much in the civilian world, because a lot of folks still hated Marines. I even remember being accosted and told I was a ‘baby killer’ – even though I was too young to of ever fought in that war.

I also remember my grief in the Beirut bombing (though I wasn’t there.) My deep grief at those poor guys – my brothers in arms — and my anger at their commanders, who didn’t give the guards the weapons, nor authority to use them, to protect our troops.

And yeah – once a Marine, always a Marine, and if they’d let me: I’d be right there now, fighting alongside them. (Tap me on the shoulder, Marine Corps — and I’ll come running, gun in hand.)

After all, I’m an American. And a Marine. And even if I don’t support a particular war – I do support our troops. Always. Would lay down my life for them on the battlefield if it came to it. (After all, I’ve lived long enough; let them have a chance at life.) Because I love our servicemen, the one’s “over there” – and no matter what, we will always remain ‘brothers in arms’.

(Tokoni – 05/15/2009)

Advertisements