A Public Sphere for Poetry, Nature, and Politics
You ever wonder why, on the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in D. C., the names are not listed alphabetically? The tourist guide answer says something about listing them by date, thus making it more historical. Or listing this guy here right alongside the buddies he died with there. And all that is true, as well as poignant.
But also it’s because 667 guys named Smith are on that wall. War, and the memory of war, are as ordinary as a soldier named Smith.
Not long ago, I listened as another war vet, an old World War II vet, spoke of memories he never shares. I thought smugly to myself, “Thank God that, with all my therapy, I’m so open …”. When it occurred to me that there are stories I never tell. Not because I can’t. But because many of my Nam stories are so ordinary. Cruel, sad, even horrific, but ordinary.
Once I was flying to somewhere – I don’t remember where – in a CH-47 helicopter. It was mid-1970. The door gunner catches my attention. He points down to a village, and above the engines, he hollers, “That’s My Lai.”
The news of the My Lai Massacre had broken shortly before I shipped out for The Nam. U. S. soldiers had killed hundreds of defenseless Vietnamese civilians, including children.
But what I saw that day was – there is only one word – ordinary. An ordinary village. Huts. Drainage ditch. That now famous drainage ditch in which so many were slaughtered. But just a ditch. Just an ordinary drainage ditch.
How many Vietnamese killed at My Lai were named Nguyen, the Vietnamese Smith?
Then there was early December of 1970. The 4th Infantry. The An Khe Pass. I’ve got a lot of memories of the An Khe Pass. Watching a sniper, who tried to kill us, get killed for instance. Stuff like that.
This one day we were on a convoy moving equipment. I’m in back with the equipment and a grunt, and there’s no cover on our truck. We’re livid because it’s rain and it’s Nam and it’s C-rations for lunch. The C’s were packaged in early 1950-something, one whole war ago.
Then the grunt says he wants to show me a trick. That’s the grunt’s words. A trick. I half expect him to pull out a deck of cards. He takes his now empty C-ration can, pulls out a rock from his pocket – he’s been saving it, I remember him picking it up – puts the rock in the can, and bends back the lid to seal it. Then he waits. Not long. We start to pass this bunch of beggar kids. The grunt holds out the can, but doesn’t throw it. He keeps it just out of reach of the beggar kids until he like culls one out of the pack. A boy maybe eight or ten. The boy keeps running and the grunt keeps the can just out of reach. (Keep in mind that convoys never stop. Never. To the snipers, we were always a moving target. Dunbar and Curry once had a blowout, and we just left them.) So the grunt now has the kid running along the side of the truck. I guess we’re doing five or ten miles an hour, and the grunt slowly starts to move rearward. Till finally he’s got the kid at the back of our truck, running between us and the next ten ton truck. The driver behind us, I mean maybe fifteen feet behind us, he’s not so much horrified as astonished. This whole time, the grunt is impassive, expressionless, flat, this whole time.
Now the kid is within an inch of what he thinks is a meal, when the grunt throws the can to a whole other bunch of beggar kids. The boy breaks left, gets to the other kids, and has to look over their shoulders as they huddle. All his effort, and the kid can’t even get to the can for all the other beggar kids. Then they open it. Then the boy gets it, the trick. He looks up. At me. I had never before, nor have I since, seen a look of such unmitigated hatred.
And that’s how ordinary war is. Ordinary as a tin can or a kid named Nguyen.
Copyright 2015 John Samuel Tieman