Sunday, September 29, 2013

Good Morning Jacob...

Letter to my Son
Sunday, 29 September

Ho Chi Minh didn't play golf

Military strategy involves finding the means to victory in a competition of force.  Grand strategy concerns the philosopher king who determines the nature of the peace once victory is achieved.  War has a political purpose and if the political calculations are faulty then defeat can still follow up the victory parade.  Witness the history of the United States in Iraq following the fairly easy overthrow of Saddam Hussein.  Decisions were made without due diligence when planning for the aftermath.

I’m fresh out of high school and bored showing up each day for a minimum wage job.  On an impulse I wind up at my local Marine Corps recruiter and find myself signing enlistment papers.  For better or worse I have now made myself an instrument of my nation’s foreign policy.  Actually, I’m not sure I know what our policy really is.  I may be a total rube but I do love my Uncle Sam.

Vietnam was a beautiful country.  It just needed a few golf courses.  As it turns out most people there weren't interested in golf.  The country became divided over this matter and other issues.  What started as a discussion of honest differences became an exchange of heated accusations that quickly turned into ugly threats.  Now everyone is pissed.  How dare they!   It wasn't long before I was enjoying a plane ride to Danang.

The human being is first and foremost an individual biological specimen.  As such, we do whatever is necessary to retain the magical force of life within the confines of our body.  This is a fundamental rule of existence that has few living exceptions.  The will to survive has some surprising twists when a person with normal, everyday concerns is dropped into an extraordinarily alien circumstance.  The repeated demonstration of violence and its consequences is just one of those circumstances.  The mind must adjust to this new normal.  The odds of survival would improve if only your thought had greater focus and clarity.  Certain human considerations become a hindrance and are discarded as baggage too heavy to tote.  Without asking my conscience’s permission my mind mostly discarded the emotions of empathy and grief.  I’m sure I’m not alone in having experienced my tour with the sensation of feeling strangely numb.  I lived in a state of an abstract Golden Rule because my emotions were indifferent.  They seemed to say what’s good for me didn't apply to others.  I knew better.

Still, people died in unfortunate ways and I stayed silent and distant because any expressions of sympathy would have been viewed as clearly fraudulent.  The idea of my squad being a band of brothers never occurred to me.  It humored me to refer to them as my associates.  People came and went.  Some were only faces.  One was just a remark. 

“Can I be assigned with my friend?”

He had just joined our company after convalescing from a previous wound.  He got his wish and the next day he was gone for good.  I never got a good look at him. 

It was enough to know some people only by their nickname.  ‘Lucky’ thought he had lucked out once again when he went to collect up an NVA flag displayed in a tree line.  It was being used as bait by the sniper that killed him on the spot. 

We called our lieutenant ‘Baby Huey’.  It’s tough for anyone commanding a platoon in a war, especially if you’re barely twenty-two.  He did a lot of growing up in the short time he was with us.  I shouldn't talk, though.  I was nineteen and acted every bit of it.  ‘Baby Huey’ showed real leadership on his last day.

Another lieutenant irritated the hell out of me the way he died.  Sometimes he took pointless risks.  This was one of those times.  It was his third Purple Heart.  Someone volunteered to write to his parents on behalf of the platoon, saying what a terrific guy he was and how we all respected him.  It was true but it wasn't the whole story.  He was wounded once killing a man in a knife fight.  That was pretty impressive.  But then he would stand amidst shrapnel flying about.  It wasn't like he was in the process of commanding anyone.  It was more like he was daring to be hit.  That was the kind of stunt he pulled when he took a bullet in his head.  The fact that he was a good guy made him a jerk for bringing such grief to his parents.

‘Sugi’ was something of a friend to me.  He was a dreamer, too.  One day he talked to me about his plans to be a car mechanic for a racing team in LA.  He was pleased.  It was a good day.  It was going to be hot but the patrol on Hill 189 seemed pretty routine.  Nothing ever happened there.  ‘Sugi’ had the point.  I figure he was still daydreaming when he walked into the ambush.  He was gone.  So was the guy that had a baby bootie attached to his helmet.  You know his wife sent it to him.  Then there was the lanky Hispanic guy from California.  The corpsman wasn't able to save him, either.  Afterwards there wasn't a lot to say.  We talked about ‘Sugi’.  What a career he had.  He came to the company as a corporal and they made him a squad leader.  That didn't work out so they made him a team leader.  Same result.  Finally, he’s walking point – the worst possible job for a daydreamer. 

Some people don’t fit in.  Cleveland Larry could do his job but his good nature was unsettling.  Imagine standing in mud, soaked from the rain and this guy is talking to you with that big smile on his big stupid face.  I’m thinking, “Larry, you don’t belong here.”  It’s a real shame guys like that show up for crap like this.  I’m ashamed I didn't give him more thought when he went.

Roger’s dad was a mortician.  That was bothersome.  Enough said.

The letter from Boston Larry’s dad was a real problem.  It arrived just in time for him to be able to read it.  Dad’s all excited and counting the days because Larry will soon be coming home.  What a celebration there will be and all.  I can get pretty superstitious and I was amazed his dad even talked this way.  It was all really screwed.  Larry stands out because he is exceptionally smart, witty and vibrant.  Now he’s as lifeless as a bag of garden fertilizer from Home Depot.  I dug deep trying to find some emotion when it happened but it wasn't there.  It’s still best to just shut up.

I have to include the strange kid that killed a small boy and then deliberately blew himself apart two nights later.  Mom and grandma were wailing something horrible as you would expect.  The kid starts crying.  There’s greater misery on Earth somewhere but this just about topped it for me.  I just felt anger.  Some people kill because they are sick.  This kid wasn't that way.  I’ll never come up with a reasonable explanation for what happened. 

The hard-ass sergeant from third platoon and his radioman Scotty went up together in a geyser of sand one afternoon.  The sergeant asked not to be moved and he died as peacefully as you can under the circumstances.  I always thought of him as a real professional.  He was a poster Marine in the best sense of the word.

Most of us made it back.  We put in a couple of years and then moved on.  People weren't much concerned with Lyndon Johnson or Robert McNamara or the shape of the negotiating table in Paris.  Most everyone was thinking about someone special back home.  I’m sure it worked the same way for the guys on the other side of the divide.  There are always friends, lovers and family to fill your mind.  What’s Ho Chi Minh, Mao Zedong or Leonid Brezhnev in comparison to that?  Seriously.  People just wanted a letter from home.

That whole bit was a lifetime ago for all of us.  Still, there are the faces and, occasionally, a name to go with it.  Once I left I never had the interest to find out what happened to anyone.  Did Tom marry his high school sweetheart?  Did Oz and Bunny make a life together in B’more?  Did Jerry ever allow his wife to go down on him?  Who knows?


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